I went to a meeting recently with some clients, lovely people doing really worthwhile work, and boy did they love a cliché. They were forever touching base, working across the piece, and moving the dial. There were any number of deep dives and light touches, and they were either sold on something or not feeling it. Learning had to be captured (poor thing) and change had to be embedded (though they never said into what).
By the end I was ready to prepare a bingo card for the next meeting. More seriously, though, I was getting a sense that these clichés had a couple of effects. One was positive and one was sinister. On the positive side, the common use of language was serving to create and build group identity. On the sinister side, clichés were so prevalent that they seemed to be reducing the space available for creative thought and discussion.
A cliché is initially a creative, original, sometimes even funny way of saying (or writing) something. It is so effective that it gets repeated a lot, and that is what turns it into a cliché. It stops being creative and original and starts being habitual, almost reflex, and can be stultifying in its effect on speech and prose.
Using clichés is lazy writing. Avoiding clichés requires more effort, more thought and care. Whatever you’re writing – job application, journal article, funding bid, doctoral thesis – aim for the specific. The initial impact of a cliché is lost through overuse, so it can seem quite vague, while particular details often seem interesting and fresh.
Take this short paragraph from a draft research proposal:
We will leave no stone unturned to ensure we get as many questionnaire responses as possible. Then it will be just a matter of time before we analyse the data and write the report. At the end of the day the research report will be fit for purpose.
Compare it with this version:
We will make every effort to maximise questionnaire responses. Our strategies will include: circulating the link by email and by social media; monitoring respondents’ locations regularly and targeting any identified geographical gaps; and offering a prize draw as an incentive. The questionnaire will be live online for one month, and it will take us another two weeks to analyse the data and write the draft report. We will write in plain English and the draft will be submitted for feedback which we will use to produce the final version.
The first version is stuffed with clichés and assertions and tells the reader nothing of substance. The second gives specific details, explaining how the researchers propose to achieve their aims.
It is really sensible to avoid clichés in your writing. Whatever you’re writing. What would you write in a condolence card? “I’m sorry for your loss”? “You are in my thoughts/prayers”? Don’t do that. Take a little time to think about the person who has died. Is there a memory you treasure that you could share in a few words? Perhaps an impact the person had on you that you could describe briefly and which will form part of their legacy? Whoever you are sending the card to will have dozens of others bearing standard clichés. Make the effort to send them something personal, real, authentic. It doesn’t have to be long, or take long, and it will mean a great deal more than platitudes.
One place you can get away with clichés is in titles, as with the title of this piece (which I could equally have called Colour Me Clichéd, or The Cliché At The End Of The Universe, or… you get the idea). But that’s about the only place you can use them in academic writing. So don’t!
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