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The Chestnut Diet: How To Cut Cliches Out of Your Writing

Time to throw the cliches out with the bathwater -- and improve your writing 110%!

Kathy Shaidle


March 26, 2013 - 7:00 am

During my second afternoon at the NRI Summit, mid-way through yet another congressman’s address, I mused about how easy it would be to create a Right-Wing Red-Meat Speech Generator:

First, plug in some vintage Reagan and Buckley quotations. 

(Hell, mix ‘em up and see if anyone notices: “I’m from the Boston telephone directory and I’m here to help you…”)

Then sprinkle on some “hard-working Mexicans.”

Squeeze in a reference to that lousy poem carved onto an old French statue.

Finally, make “America is the greatest country in the world” a default value.

I ask you:

Why do professional conservatives pay speechwriters big money when some basic java script could produce the same mediocre results — a string of empty-calorie cliches?

I’m not the only one complaining about this.

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A recent thread at Richocet invited readers to share “Conservative or Libertarian Sayings That Make You Wince.”

Some of my “favorites” made the list — like “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” As one wise fellow noted:

Plenty of good men have vigorously stood up to evil men, and lost. In the 20th century alone, there are mass graves full of principled, courageous men that fought the good fight and were murdered for doing so, while their opponents died comfortable in their own beds, achieving all their goals. Lenin died of natural causes, while the White forces were murdered en masse. Stalin killed more people than Hitler ever dreamed of, and not only died a peaceful death, but had monuments and temples built to his memory for decades to come.

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph” is for bad men to win. And it happens. The slogan makes it sound like if you just stand up, bam, evil loses. Reality doesn’t work like that.

As for me, I often wish “they” had “come for” Pastor Niemöller first, just so I’d never have to hear his most famous declaration mangled in yet another boring speech.

This isn’t just a political messaging issue, although we right-wingers are always being told we need to “rebrand.”

No matter what you write — a personal blog or annual reports for Fortune 500 corporations — you can always improve your work by snipping away as many cliches as you can.

(Or that your bosses and clients will let you — too many of them are still hooked on “solutions” and “excellence” and other 1990s jargon.)

Even if this is the only change you make to your writing style ever, you’ll notice a big improvement in your copy, while giving your brain a workout.

So turn your boilerplate (whatever that even is) to “high” and blast away all the corny shibboleths, trite truisms, and vapid verbiage that’s making your writing passe before anyone else even reads it.

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And yes, I invite you to count the cliches I use in this very article, and in all my other work.

We all use them. The goal is to try to reduce our reliance on these banalities.

For one thing, unlike stereotypes, many cliches simply aren’t true.

Oscar Wilde liked to turn cliches inside out, and the resulting epigrams – “Work is the curse of the drinking classes”; “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” — are much more accurate observations about the world than the originals are.

Dennis Prager likes to say, “Think a second time.” If you want to be a better writer, make that your motto.

Take Mark Steyn, for example, after he heard a popular, seemingly watertight cliche once too often:

I was at a college graduation in Vermont a few weeks ago, and the big shot speaker who had flown in from New York told these 21-year-olds, “You are living in such a fast-moving world.” I thought this was ridiculous. In the book I used the example of an HG Wells type time traveler, if you put him on the old time travel machine in 1890 and propelled him forward to 1950, he would be astonished, and he would be in his 1890 kitchen, 60 years later everything would be different.

He’d be amazed by the refrigerator, he’d be amazed by the full sound of an orchestra coming from a little box on the countertop. He’d be amazed by the station wagon pulling into the drive. Man conquered night with the electric light bulb, conquered distance with the invention of the internal combustion engine. He would be amazed by the telephone, he would be amazed that you could book an aeroplane flight to Los Angeles or to London or to Sydney.

We propel him on another 60 years to our time, from 1950 to our time, and actually the kitchen looks pretty much the same. The fridge is a little less bulky and it may have an ice water thing in it, but there’s really no difference, the phone has got buttons instead of a dial, again, basically not really different…

This isn’t about being a contrarian for the hell of it, but about getting to the truth.

Cliches prevent us from really looking at the world around us, and thinking about it clearly.

These corny expressions help us meet our deadlines faster, but that’s about it.

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Are cliches ever appropriate?

Of course.

This news story, for example, is the only time I’ve ever felt that using the “Shocked! Shocked!” line from Casablanca wasn’t just appropriate, it was required.

Such exceptions, however, come around rarely.

When Star Trek cast members die and you can’t resist typing “He’s dead, Jim” or something about being beamed up, ask yourself if you really want to be the hundredth-thousand person to go there.

Before you hit “send” or “save” or “publish,” ask yourself if you’re really adding to the universe except more white noise and static?

Ninety-nine percent of the time, act as if there’s a federal moratorium on Star Wars dialogue, any expression you can imagine showing up on a Successories poster or in Colin Quinn’s Twitter, and the word “awesome.”

That alone would eliminate half the cliche emissions on the planet.

Check this site if you’re ever in doubt.

(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 14th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).

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All Comments   (22)
All Comments   (22)
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Avoid Cliches like the plague! They're a dime a dozen!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Great advice. Now we can all communicate better going forward.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Cliches can lead to your arrest. The unabomber Ted Kaczynski, had a unique style and a few favorite sayings he used in his letters. One of them, "You cannot eat your cake and have it too," at first led investigators to believe Kaczynksi was of average or low intelligence, because everyone knows the saying is "you cannot have your cake and eat it too." Ted's version is much more logical, when you think about.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"This isn’t just a political messaging issue, although we right-wingers are always being told we need to 'rebrand.'"
What the Right needs to do is really THINK about the values they espouse (this article IS about mindless espousing, correct?) and stop trying to have it both ways. If you REALLY believe in your freedom then you believe in mine as well; passing laws and constitutional amendments forbidding idiotic things like two fairies calling themselves "married" or declaring the Ten Commandments to be the basic law of the land only makes the Right look like ridiculous, hidebound ideologues and turns reasonable people off to the message of individual freedom trapped in the amber of those political cliches.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Again, about the passive voice. It seems to me that the only people who have trouble with the passive voice are English teachers who knock a letter grade off your term paper for it. They indoctrinate all the journalism and English majors that this is some crime right up there with splitting an infinitive or dangling a participle.

I have always liked to use the passive voice. Sometimes a person doesn't care if his writing isn't "forceful" enough. Sometimes there's a nice smoothness to the writing and it has a nice story telling quality to it. Not every essay is a news report or a call to action. In my opinion, it's one of those writing rules that all the grammarians like to shove up people's noses, but is really just nitpicking.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

You are "110%" correct. Passive voice is a STYLE of writing, it is every bit as "legitimate" as others if the outcome is smooth and the thoughts are conveyed without undue clumsiness or difficulty for the reader.

The actual success of such a style on a case by case basis is also a bit subjective, as most "readers" that you'd encounter bothering to express any dissatisfaction with "passive voice" are the Apparatchiks of a "State Run Edumication Inrusty" who are generally less intelligent and well read than their "status" would otherwise indicate.

They dont like "passive voice" because its "too hard" for them to understand… in rather the same way a competitive private sector job, without the artificialities of tenure and a guaranteed retirement severed from any actual value you deliver to the customer (employer) is also “too hard” for them to master.

They are too LAZY to read well written material in The Passive Voice. It simply goes over their heads, and as the dutiful Low-Information Political Drones they are, they attack that which they cannot comprehend.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think you've nailed it. Perhaps it could be summed up as, if you don't understand the reason for a rule, it's probably designed to accommodate the lowest intelligence. You made me think that perhaps the passive voice taboo is also a backwards bend for those who English is a second language, i.e. immigrants. Recent history has shown that for academia any distinctly Anglo culture or idiom needs to be "diversified". Oddly enough, Spanish for English speakers cirricula still throws those future indicative tenses and the like at you. After all, we all need to understand the "richness" of a foreign language.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Have to disagree Kathy, sometimes a well chosen cliche can be a great way to make a point because people are familiar with them. Same thing works in comedy,
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I take umbrage to your 110%! I understand that you wouldn't tell your boss you'll be sure to give a task 95% of your effort (which is still technically an A) as you want him/her to have complete competence in you, but can anyone think of a day that goes 100% perfectly? Is there any job that can't be improved upon? ...............sulking-rant-scold over...........
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It would be naïve to think that very many people educated in Americanized schools would even know what the active or passive voice is. The majority of people who read newspapers and listen to broadcast news are basically ignorant of the English language; after all they speak the merican language of television. So politicians know their audience and have no qualms about shoveling out the cliché after cliché speech. By the way it was Hilary the Great who coined the cliché "we are all new Yorkers now" after the September 11 attack. I will never be a New Yorker I will never have amount of money that it takes to be a New Yorker and I will never ever have the power and wealth of the Clinton family.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I didn't learn English until I learned French. It is only when you break down a language that you understand it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You are right. I learned the English language by learning and teaching Latin. The Latin language is an invention of logic and clear thinking untainted by American TV. American English has been in complete free fall for several decades now; I confess that I am having more and more difficulty understanding Americans when they speak their Newspeak.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, some good news: it doesn't take long for phrases to go moldy and stale, maybe only days in pundit world. Two examples of the recently dead:

-- low-information voters, which means 'anyone who disagrees with me'. Next step may be to refine into acronym form, so 'Low-Information Airhead Republican Schlubs' simplifies to LIARS.
-- wisdom of crowds, which seems to be a pointless inversion of 'madness of crowds', part of the title of a seminal book by Charles Mackay, first published in 1841. Oscar Wilde is no doubt rotating rapidly in his grave, because messing with a title of true quality is like pissing on a communion wafer, namely best left to Democrats.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
But but but... what if you get a chance to say something you have always wanted to say?

Yes, I like cliche phrases. In certain settings. If the situation we are talking about is something that should be treated seriously, and they are used in a serious manner, no, they are not good then. But if not, if I find them in a setting where the more lighthearted approach is appropriate I'm afraid I can find them quite amusing. So for me it depends on the context. Used right they can be funny, and also comforting in the way anything old and often used and very familiar can be.

Especially if I'm very tired, or depressed, and looking for something to help me relax and unwind a bit I usually can achieve that better with something that does seem comfortably familiar, no matter how worn, rather than with something that seems all new, and since I often use comedy for that purpose I also often look for exactly the kind of writing where you are likely to find phrases like "We are not in Kansas anymore".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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