Avoiding Cliches in WritingWriter's Web
(printable version here)

Can you identify the trite, overused, and plain tired expressions in these 2 paragraphs?

John Doe had been sleeping like the dead when his alarm clock screamed like a Banshee at him. It was 1:36 P.M., and John had planned to be up bright and early that morning. His eyelids were as heavy as lead as he wracked his brain for excuses. It had been the mother of all lost weekends. Now he had to pay the piper--he'd missed Core again, and the hand of doom was heavy upon his grade in the class.

In Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, we see an epic battle being waged between systems of morality. Arrayed against him, like keepers of the flame, we have Nietzsche's mortal enemies, the guardians of Slave Morality. In the long run, these guardians of the tried-and-true morality have suppressed human instinct, Nietzsche trumpets to the reader.

How did you do?

If you identified similes such as "like the dead," metaphors such as "keepers of the flame," and modifiers such as "bright and early" then you have a good eye for worn-out language. Sadly, many great phrases, such as "mother of all battles," are coined but quickly become overused. How many times did you get sick of hearing people say "Not!" a decade ago?

How do you identify and avoid cliches?

When writing, question any comparison or image you are about to use. Cliches often sneak in the barn door (that's a cliche, by the way) when we try to be descriptive. Is the phrase you're about to use one that you've heard frequently in casual conversation, newscasts, and advertising? If so, it is probably a cliche or on its way there.

Instead of using stock phrases and images, be creative--but beware! Using the thesaurus has many dangers, such as misusing a synonym that doesn't quite fit the meaning you want. Also, inventing your own colorful descriptions can lead you as far astray as any worn-out phrase. Finally, avoid "padding" your work with cliches. This is an effective way to increase the length of a paper, but not to increase your grades. Most professors know cliches when they see them.

A list of worn-out or vague phrases found in student work, and alternates (or at least advice):

Phrase Alternative
everyday life can be cut completely or made specific. Consider: everyday life is very different for a college student and, say, a stock broker or homeless person!
in today's society today, currently
pros and cons advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits
people which ones? Be specific.
society who is "society"? Too many alternates exist to list. Instead, be specific about which group of people is being considered
this day & age today, presently

Dr. Michael Spear, in our Department of Journalism, warns his students to avoid these journalistic phrases because they are so often overused. Many of them crop up in academic writing, too. We have added a few others to this (admittedly incomplete) list. Occasionally they have an ironic effect, or a reader might like them (this writer loves "sands of time") but usually faculty members mark them as inappropriate:

all walks of life give the devil his due never a dull moment
behind the eight ball hook, line, and sinker nipped in the bud
bitter end by hook or crook patience of Job
calm before the storm in the nick of time paying the piper
checkered career in the same boat sands of time
chomping at the bit leaps and bounds selling like hot cakes
cool as a cucumber leave no stone unturned stick out like a sore thumb
cry over spilled milk lock, stock, and barrel whirlwind tour
fall on deaf ears long arm of the law winds of change
from time immemorial march of history writing on the wall

Does this mean your writing must be boring?

Academic prose doesn't have to be boring. Some of the phrases in the Nietzsche example could be used:

In Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, we see an epic battle being waged between systems of morality. Nietzsche, angered by those who follow what he labels a "Slave Morality," claims that some religions suppress human instinct.

"Epic battle" is a colorful phrase that one doesn't hear every day. Good, active verbs help too--"battle. . .waged" has much more impact than would "there is a struggle that is enacted between. . . ." See the Writer's Web materials about Adding Action to Writing for more advice.

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