Clichés: Can’t live with ’em – and some writers can’t live without ’em

Following is a list of phrases that have caused me to want to tear my hair out — or to put it more clearly, frustrated me greatly — in the past week as I have read them in various publications:

One communicator wrote that a pleasing situation was “music to my ears,” and added that he was happy when a politician “stepped up to the plate” to confront an issue.

A press release referring to a jewelry auction said, “The necklace and earring set soared well above its estimate of $650,000 to $950,000, with the hammer finally falling at the tune of $2 million.”

And my favorite: A writer stated that his subject had “witnessed the media tsunami from the catbird seat.”

All of these, of course, are clichés. They are easy to recognize but difficult to stop using. Writers sometimes use them just because we are lazy. We rely on them because many times they do a decent job of creating pictures in our mind’s eye. We know what they mean because we’ve heard them over and over. But often they are imprecise. And especially when we mix tsunamis with catbird seats, we really confuse the issue.

Writer Adam Gopnik made this interesting point in his New Yorker review of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman”:

“Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive.”

In other words, some clichés perfectly capture a scene or thought. If someone tells you to “Dance like no one’s watching,” you know without thinking, for example, that they are telling you to lose your inhibitions. The problem for writers is that we are paid to deliver original material. If we can’t be quite as clever as that person who first dreamed up the evocative cliché, we should instead be clear and concise. Our story in that case might not live in history, but at least our readers will understand it.

Paul Steinmetz is director of Public Affairs & Community Relations at Western Connecticut State University. He is also principal of Writing Associates, providing writing services to businesses and individuals.

About Paul

I grew up in Marin County, California, and moved to Connecticut to join The News-Times, a community newspaper in Danbury where I eventually served as editor for 10 years. I joined Western Connecticut State University and ran the PR and development offices. I now serve as director of community relations and public affairs. I have four kids, all with the same wife, and now run Writing Associates, a consulting service that makes writing easier for my clients.