Daniel D. Beck

Felt trite might delete later: the hows and whys of avoiding clichés

You might have noticed some clichés appearing especially frequently in business writing lately. You might have used one of them. At the time that I’m writing this, the fashions include:

Soon there will be a different set of trending clichés. But the problem stays the same: the repetition and overuse of canned phrases distracts readers. I’m not a cliché hater (let’s circle back to that later), but one way to improve your writing is to recognize why you use clichés and learn to replace them.

Clichés are what you write when you don’t know what to write

Writers often reach for clichés when they’re trying to put an incomplete thought into words. You and your reader know, consciously or not, that a cliché stands in for something specific. It’s likely that you haven’t articulated that specific something to yourself, much less your audience.

In times of urgency or crisis, it makes sense that you’d use clichés more frequently than you would otherwise. An unfamiliar, stressful situation does not support creative thinking. When you’re not sure what you want to say, using a cliché points vaguely in the direction of having thought through the problem without doing any of the work.

Clichés withhold information

For example, take the phrase out of an abundance of caution, as in, “Out of an abundance of caution, I have decided to cancel the event.”

Apart from overuse, the phrase doesn’t add anything specific to the sentence. Anybody could have written it for any reason. The cliché calls attention to information withheld, like a redaction: “Because ██████████████, I have decided to cancel the event.”

The lack of specificity leaves a blank that the reader can fill in with their own speculation about my intent. The cliché implies that I have a reasonable motivation without substantiating my reasonableness. It suggests that there’s a risk I’m avoiding, but it doesn’t name that risk. Perhaps I’m trying to protect attendees from danger or maybe I’m trying to avoid criticism. Because I’ve abundance of caution-ed you, you don’t know what I was thinking. It looks evasive and creates an appearance of insincerity. It doesn’t look good.

Slow it down and break it down

So how do we avoid a cliché like this? You’ve got to spot them, then break them.

First, slow down. It’s tempting to pad sentences with filler when you’re missing important information. If you slow down, then you stop the habit as you write. Or when you take the time to edit (you are taking the time to edit, right?), you can flag clichés as you stumble over them.

Either way, when you’ve hit a trouble spot, mark it in some way. Literal placeholder text is good, such as:

or you can highlight the sentence with a comment instead, like this:

A screenshot of a Google Docs document wtih a comment attached to a cliché

Whatever you do, it helps to use the same method every time. Later, you can search for one placeholder and know you haven’t missed any.

Next, break the cliché. Sometimes spotting the cliché is enough and you’ll replace it with something more specific and meaningful. But sometimes it’s harder to see it as your reader might. When that happens, it can be helpful to deconstruct the cliché and see if it still works.

Read back the suspect sentence or phrase with words similar to but not exactly the same as the cliché. “Out of an abundance of caution” might become “From a plenty of vigilance.” Now, you’re not actually going to use these words, but it helps you see it with a fresh perspective. “From a plenty of vigilance” is not something you (or anyone else) would write. It stands out as meaningless in a way that “Out of an abundance of caution” does not, even though it’s nearly the same thing. This is a signal that it’s time to rewrite it.

It’s frustrating, but rewriting is the hard part. You may have to do some research or check in with a colleague to get the information you need. Sometimes you have to be a little brave to overcome the cliché. Writing “Because we want to avoid spreading disease“ instead of “Out of an abundance of caution” requires openness to your audience. Ultimately, you have to ask and answer a question: What do you want to communicate to your audience?

Sometimes clichés are OK

The occasional cliché is understandable and acceptable. You won’t always have the time or energy to find better words. That’s OK. The grammar police are a myth; there are no goons seizing keyboards for offenses against style.

We’re “circling back” now, if you hadn’t noticed. When I wrote this, I was uncertain about how exactly I would return to this topic. I filled that uncertainty with a placeholder: a cliché. “Circle back,” despite overuse, is a well-understood placeholder.

If I weren’t “circling back” to make a point, I could take the time to edit it out. In its place, I could have written, “I’ll come back to this near the end of the essay.” That’s slightly better, but it’s not an error to have left in the cliché. It’s just a little bland.

Not all writing needs this level of care. If you’re sending a low-stakes email to a few colleagues, then you have my permission to be as hackneyed as you like. You have good instincts about the seriousness of your writing or the size of the audience it will reach. Worry about clichés proportionally.

But if the work merits it and you have the time, try replacing a cliché. Recognizing clichés takes practice, and removing them takes effort, but the rewards are making your writing more interesting and building trust with the reader.