I was delighted by a headline in the Chicago Tribune today (Jan. 15, 2019): “Cliched language is, well, problematic.” For those of you who missed Christopher Borrelli’s column under that headline, here’s a link. (The headline that caught my eye was the print version; the online version contains different, but still bothersome, words.)
Borrelli refers to “thinking more about the silent, everyday killers” than about the trendy words we reached for too often in 2018. I love that.
Don’t just lean on everybody else’s imagery — such as epidemic or limited bandwidth, two cliches that Borrelli mentioned.
I agree completely that selecting words carefully, even Seriously, would make us slow down. Whether in speaking or in writing, I can’t argue with that.
Just because we can send a message instantly doesn’t mean we should write it instantly. Good writing — clear writing that sounds or reads like the writer’s own voice — takes time and consideration.
We don’t get to see one another’s handwriting in the mail very much anymore, or at least we won’t now that the Christmas cards have all come. That’s another reason to make your writing sound more like you — it’s a chance to transmit your voice, your thoughts, in your own style.
Regular readers will find references here to language and experiences from playing the cello to supporting the Chicago Blackhawks. That’s because both of those pastimes are part of my life, my style, and thus my store of metaphors and similes for other things. (After last night’s major loss to New Jersey, the word “both” closest to the word “Blackhawks” nearly came out “bother” when I first typed it. How true.)
In business writing, you may not be able to rely on your hobbies and pastimes for your figurative language. But don’t rely on the hobbyhorses of everyone else. (Maybe your bosses’ favorites, if you must.)
There are other ways to avoid cliches:
Keep reading to find new imagery. One of my recent favorites was in Kerry Greenwood’s detective story, “Ruddy Gore,” which is rich with images and wordplay from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, such as “Ruddigore” (which figures in the plot).
One of the investigators, Inspector Jack Robinson, has a constable I hadn’t met in previous books in this series. (“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” fans, take notes.) Robinson’s fictional constable is named John Smith, so Greenwood needed to make him more human by giving him a nickname. That nickname, Alias, kept me smiling through the whole book. (“Oh right, Alias — that’s John Smith.”)
Find books of word lists. One of my favorites is Arthur Plotnik’s “Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives.” (Sometimes I’d like to send the White House a copy, but I digress.)
Don’t adopt your favorite writers’ whole style, but learn to watch how they work (and play) with words. Your writing, your reading, even the language will be better off.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.
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