Recently, I came across a list of 150 journalism clichés posted by the Washington Post.
The list is that publication’s ultimate “Do not use” list.
Among the problematic words and phrases: “probe” when used as “an uncomfortable substitute for ‘investigation’” and “table” as a verb, as in “council tabled the motion.”
Clichés are clichés because they are so overused that they have become embedded in our thinking and the language around particular situations.
They are widely thought to signify lazy writing.
They make their way to the backs of people’s minds, where they lurk there until the unsuspecting writer must somehow indicate that a city council has postponed making a decision on a motion and does so by writing the ultimate offence: they tabled the motion.
Of course, the Washington Post poked fun at itself. The list included “[Anything]-gate, especially if you’re writing in the Washington Post” and “parlor game,” which the list’s introduction uses to describe the act of picking out clichés for Post staff.
I’m sure it was no accident that the stock photo paired with the article was a heavy-handed visual as well: a Scrabble board with tiles spelling the word cliché, minus the accent of course.
Some clichés are worse than others, if the measure of value is subtlety. Usually, clichés are obvious and that is their crime. They are shortcuts where writers should be striving to phrase things in new ways.
Regardless of how much I dislike clichés, I do feel there is a time and place for them in journalism. If it’s accurate and it reads OK, why not use it?
Why not stick with the shortcut instead of the long way around?
When it comes to creative writing, I say rewrite all the clichés. But creative writing often has one key luxury journalism does not: time.
As the clock ticks down to deadline, we want to get the information together in a story that’s clear, concise, accurate and easy to read.
In creative writing, it makes sense to use different language where clichés would do in less literary circumstances.
I’m not advocating that we all start using clichés liberally and in every scenario, but at the end of the day, I hardly think using them is a terrible offence on the part of journalists. Why mess with a phrase that is direct, generally accepted, and conveys what we need it to?
As the cliché goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
(And in case you were wondering — this column is utterly and completely (like this) riddled with (and that) clichés on purpose.)