Clichés are worn out, overused expressions that often express a popular or common idea. We all know them and understand their meanings. Therefore, it’s easy to reach for clichés when writing or speaking.
“Light as a feather.”
“Blind as a bat.”
But as writers, we must purge clichés from our work. George Orwell once said, “Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
May I update Orwell’s advice by adding online as well as print?
I read a novel recently (I won’t name it) where the imperiled protagonist must have said or thought at least a dozen times that “the coast was clear.” And yet, not once scene in the novel took place on a “coast” of any type. No oceans, no waves striking sandy beaches or rocky shores, no views of land from out at sea.
That’s lazy writing—and lazy editing.
“Go for broke.”
“Lay down the law.”
“Nip it in the bud.”
“Playing with fire.”
I could write a much longer list, but it would pain me (and you) to do so.
The Cliché’s Narrative Arc
Here’s the contradiction about clichés: every cliché got its start as an original, fresh, and innovative use of language. Someone came up with the expression and used it for the first time—and for that I have high praise.
Others read the expression and thought it was “spot on” (that’s a cliché). The expression perfectly described the intended sentiment. And so other writers and speakers adopted the expression, overusing it to the extent that what was once original language slowly transformed into the worn-out phrase.
I would love to come up with an expression so original and poignant and definitive that it becomes widely adopted by other writers—that it becomes a cliché. Isn’t that every writer’s dream?
A Jumble of Jargon
As for jargon, a term that refers to specialized language often adopted by a specific profession or group, I also have a measure of praise. There is medical jargon, legal jargon, tech jargon, engineering jargon, and so on.
I’ve worked with many clients in the corporate world—mostly in technology and health care—and have valiantly battled against the use of jargon in their written communications. Expressions and terms like:
- “in my wheelhouse”—my area of responsibility or expertise
- “circle back”—we’ll talk again about this
- “low-hanging fruit”—something easy to get done
- “best practice”—an accepted way of doing something that will get the intended results
- “deep dive”—a more thorough analysis of a situation
- “facing headwinds”—challenges or obstacles
- “onboarding” —integrate or familiarize
- “synergy” (the worst of them all)—I think this just means cooperation or teamwork
There are many, many more. And most of them are eye-rollers.
I’ve often had to edit content originally written by my clients. Their documents would be loaded with jargon. I would strike out the jargon and replace it with more natural language that was easier to understand.
Until I had an epiphany: Jargon, because it was so widely adopted within its community, was easy to understand. When someone used jargon, others knew what they were talking about, at least most of the time.
So I ended up changing tactics in my fight against jargon. I re-wrote the most egregious, ridiculous occurrences and let other uses of jargon stay. As a writer who insists on clarity, but also strives for originality, I had mixed feelings about this approach. But overall, I think it improved the synergy between my clients and me.