“Avoid cliché” – good advice, of course, advice you get early as a writer and never lose. But if the advice remains, the reasons for it can get lost, particularly as there’s more than one type of cliché, and more than one way it can harm writers and readers.
Here, in roughly ascending order of iniquity, are five types of cliché. I sometimes shudder at them as a reader, but more often as a writer – I’m not immune to them, nobody is, and it’s in a spirit of confession not superiority that I’m writing this.
BOILERPLATE: What Maura Johnston, in a Twitter conversation that inspired this piece, called the “lettuce of writing”. Flavourless shreds of words, dotted here and there around a piece just because they came to mind so easily. Look, there was one just now – “here and there” is doing no work in that sentence at all, it just emerged as I wrote.
Boilerplate’s damage, I think, is mostly tonal: it creates waffle where none is needed, and makes everything just a touch greyer. Sometimes changing it up for something livelier can impede flow, though – there is only so much thinking you’re going to get a reader to do, and you should probably save your most interruptive language for your best ideas.
A classic example of business boilerplate is “In today’s [x] marketplace”, where [x] is “dynamic”, “fast-moving”, “ever-changing” etc. – this never adds anything to the sentence it introduces, and it’s particularly bad because you’re almost always throwing away the beginning of a piece or blurb.
EMBEDDED METAPHORS: A level up from boilerplate, these are metaphors which once might have been fresh but are now so automatic we barely unpick them at all. “Sophomore album”, “vocal gymnastics”, “raw talent”, “outside the box”, “blue-sky thinking” – yes, the enervated poetics of ‘business speak’ fit well here.
Occasionally the metaphor actually sucks, and fun can be had teasing out why. Mostly they’re perfectly good analogies which simply no longer tickle the synapses. They’re worse than boilerplate only in that they signal you as a lazier writer, happy to take the – here we go – path of least resistance.
BORROWED STYLE: A slightly harder one to nail down which is why being accused of it gets people defensive. The language here may be fresh, the cliché lies in the tone of voice. Once a few people have spotted the borrowed style it becomes recognisable (and laughable) everywhere – think the winsome packaging tone pioneered by Innocent on their smoothies.
Is it always harmful? Not necessarily, there can be something reassuring about it, like spotting a familiar landmark. But it can be toxic, imprisoning even the very good ideas it contains: research reports and white papers, for instance, suffer horribly from the overused ‘school science experiment’ style. “METHOD: A sample of 1000 was recruited” etc etc.
TIRED CITATIONS: There’s nothing wrong with proverbs and truisms, but there’s also a reason you don’t often see people sagely note that “too many cooks spoil the broth” in a published article: there’s no way to present it as an original thought any more. But the army of overfamiliar quotes and aphorisms you see on business blogs and publications shows no signs of such humility. The power of these quotes – to underline and sell an idea – rapidly diminishes through sheer overuse and they seem to blend into a meaningless whole. Half my customers want a faster horse – but I don’t know which half.
Outside the persuasion industry the problem is less acute but anyone whose seen the “dancing about architecture” quote wielded in anger will know what I’m talking about.
Tired quotes get us to the central problem with cliché. Someone who peppers their marketing blog with the same quotes found on every other marketing blog gives the distinct impression of never reading anything other than marketing blogs. If the quotes are second-hand, won’t the ideas they back up be too? (And yes, the same thing definitely goes for citing the same old case studies, experiments, etc. too.)
UNEXAMINED IDEAS: So we’ve gone through hackneyed phrases, metaphors, styles and examples to get to the real issue – what happens when ideas themselves get baked into writing and rolled out unopposed? This is the point at which cliché shades into stereotype or ambiguity. A very open-ended, ambiguous word like “real” or “viral” or “engagement” gets dropped into a piece, because it can be reached for easily as a substitute for what they actually are talking about. The peculiar danger of these clichés is different from others – in other cases, the cliché is a cliché because it has an agreed-on meaning (more or less). In this case, the cliché is a handwave, and the reader rushes to fill the gap with their own understanding of what a word means. The effect is the same, though – nothing new gets through
Research at the moment is full of these words, and in another piece I’ll take a look at some of the most virulent. In the meantime, explorers of cliché should read (if they haven’t already) the best ever book on the topic, Gustave Flaubert’s brilliant and sometimes cruel Dictionary Of Received Ideas.