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

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.

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.

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.

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.