When Clichés Work “Like Gangbusters”

I joked in an issue of my e-letter about writing “good,” and got a note from a reader soon after that said…

“So there I was reading my favorite newsletter writer and I come across, ‘For career success: lather, rinse, repeat.’ A cliche!

“Say it ain’t so. You’re beyond trite phrases and careless writing. So please don’t do it again. I can’t stand to be disillusioned.”

In my defense, this was my reply…

“Me, beyond trite phrases? Never!

“I admit that I agree — we need yet another hackneyed piece of writing like we need a hole in the head. There’s nothing worse, after all, than phrases as worn out as an old shoe. As writer and grammarian extraordinaire, William Safire, once said, ‘last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.’

“But please, when it comes to the ‘rules’ on using cliches, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, shall we? That is to say, with this knee-jerk critique, I fear you might be barking up the wrong tree.

“After all, while I know it’s never too late to learn something new about writing (better late than never, I always say) the tradition of using cliches in copy is about as old as dirt and not always the refuge of the village idiot, as you make it seem.

“In short, never say never.

“Because sometimes, frankly, a well-worn cliche can actually be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place at the end of a piece and you want to convey an idea both quickly and maybe with a little irony.

“To put it simply, the point of the article is to look at new challenges with innocence and new ideas, rather than falling back on the tried and true… and shopworn.  With the irony here being, that’s a piece of advice we’ll have to return to over a lifetime of writing, much in the same way a dog returns to his own vomit. It is an  insight that can only come from, well, experience.

“It is what it is.”

To which my reader wisely replied, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” And so it is. Except when it isn’t. But that’s for another time.



  1. I know you are fabulously successful. I know you have a depth of experience and breadth of knowledge from which I could gain a wealth of information.

    I am a mere beginner. Looking to you and the other greats of copywriting as my mentors.

    So forgive me for pointing out two glaring typos: “There’s nothing worse, after all, then phrases…” (then should be than) and “that’s a piece of advice will have to return to…” (will should be we’ll)

    I’ve noticed so many mistakes in the finest of publications lately. I don’t think anyone pays for editing (including, or maybe especially, book publishers) any more. It seems like such a small issue on the surface. But editorial errors in copy make me seriously consider the quality of the product or service.

    I’m not questioning your knowledge of grammar and spelling here.

    My question is: From your professional point of view, should we be concerned about this growing pattern of errors in the printed word?

    Does grammar and spelling matter any more?

    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise.

  2. Kim Grass » Hi Kim, you are not “mere”… and many thanks for catching those! May I take some consolation in this: I had a Jesuit history teacher who used to say, “A slip of the tongue (or hand) is not a slip of the mind.” I’d like to credit those to an over-ardent spell-checker, but it was just mean typing in word substitutions in a hasty entry.

    You’re probably right, though, that editorial errors are on the rise. Chalk it up to the faster pace of publication today. Or maybe the ease with which so many things get published. Or too much TV and not enough reading. Or typing drunk. Whatever it is, there are excuses but maybe none of them, persuasive. I would say that yes, grammar and spelling do matter.

    However, all of that said… message always matters more. I’ve heard some wise people speak with halting vocabulary and dumb accents, while still making a whole lot of sense. And it’s got to be at least somewhat the same in print. As for me, I like that people read closely enough to catch the errors, but I can’t say I’m always happy when they’ve found one.

  3. First: My god, you actually read these comments. Very cool. Thank you for such a classy and helpful answer.

    Second: I’m an ex-school teacher. Not a Jesuit or nun, mind you. Guess it’s hard for me to put away my red grading pen!

    Finally, I agree that the message is the top priority. I so admire your conversational writing style. Having written so many formal papers (read Master’s Thesis, proposals), I’m finding it very difficult to relax and gain a story teller’s voice.

    Thank you for putting together such an informative website. I spent about four hours reading your posts, articles, and book recommendations yesterday. You’ve created a treasure trove!

  4. I really enjoyed this funny post – typos notwithstanding.

    I admit I’m guilty of using cliche’s as well, but you have elevated it to another level by using at least one on each sentence. 😀

  5. Judith » Thanks! I hope one day to make typos my trademark… it would save me a lot of time and embarassment…. embarrasment… wait, embarrassment. Yes, that’s it.

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