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Avoid Cliches Like the Plague: Keeping Your Writing Fresh

Keeping your writing fresh and interesting has never been more important. There’s a positive flood of content out there, vying for everyone’s attention. Read enough of it, and it all starts to sound the same.

Don’t ever let anyone say that about your writing.

When I worked in TV news, I constantly used to tell writers: “If you’ve seen a particular word or phrase a thousand times before, don’t ever use it. Choose a fresh turn of phrase – or at least a simple, straightforward one.”

To give writers an idea of what I meant, I came up with a list of Cliches I’d Love to Never See Again. Originally I tailored it for the environment I was in – a TV newsroom in New York City – but many of these hackneyed words pop up in all kinds of writing. So (because you should also revise and rewrite with your audience in mind) here’s a few highlights.

My Incomplete and Highly Opinionated List of Cliches

11th Hour: This is when all last-minute deals get done. If they were done at the 10th Hour, they wouldn’t be last-minute, would they? Of course, you could just say, “last-minute.”

All Too: All too often, we reach for this cliché to illustrate how distressingly often something happens. But exactly how often is that? Stick to words and phrases that have precise meanings.

Amid: Does anyone ever use this word in conversation? “Today I mowed the lawn, amid concerns about the length of the grass.” If something caused something else, say “because.”

Called On/Called For: Lawmakers “call on” the President to sign a bill. Concerned citizens “call for” change. What phone are they calling from? If somebody wants something, say they want it. Don’t “call for” anything except a pizza.

Down To The Wire: You can use this phrase if you can point to the wire in question. (Hint: try looking below everything else – nothing ever goes “up to the wire.”)

Effort: Anything anyone tries to do is “an effort.” Just say they’re trying.

Following: What’s wrong with “after?”

Hammered Out: Whenever I read that lawmakers “hammered out” the state budget, I picture my local Assemblyman standing by a forge in a leather apron, hammer in hand. What actually happens is nowhere near that interesting. Just say they agreed.

It’s: It’s a construction that happens all the time: beginning a sentence with “it,” the most colorless word in the English language. Try recasting the sentence to begin with a real person doing a real thing.

On Board With: “Not everyone is on board with the Governor’s proposal.” Some might agree, though.

On Hand: How convenient that “the Mayor was on hand at the opening of the new shopping center.” (It’s good to keep a spare mayor or two on hand. You never know when you might need one.) He wasn’t “on hand.” He was there, doing his job. Say so.

Out: Thousands “turned out” to cheer the Yankees at the stadium. Well, yeah – obviously they didn’t stay home. Omit needless words and just say they cheered.

Speaking Out: If you are a thought leader – or writing on behalf of one – remember that the fact that something was said is not important. What’s important is what was said. Start with that.

Up: Unless you’re pointing skyward, this word can usually be cut with no ill effects. It just clutters your sentences. (Not “clutters them up.”)

When It Comes To: When it comes to meaningless verbiage, this phrase is hard to beat. Turn your sentence around. Make it active. Show people doing things.

Which/That: In my TV news days, I once worked with an anchor who cut out the words “which” and “that” in every sentence he found them. He called it “going on a which hunt.” Give it a try sometime – you’ll be surprised how often those words do no useful work. Make every word count.

You’re Not Alone: If you’ve ever found yourself reaching for this phrase to try to generate empathy in your audience, you’re not alone. Find a fresh way to reassure people you have the solution to their long-standing problem.

I can’t emphasize it enough: keep your writing simple, economical, yet fresh and colorful. It takes skill and hard work, but it’s worth it.

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