Why Cutting Clichés From Your Copy is as Easy as Pie

Apples and Oranges

This post is by Mohsin Naqi of Blogging Bits.

Want to take your copywriting to the next level?

Avoid clichés like the plague.

OK, so there’s a cliché in the headline, the opening and the picture of this post, and we’re all in on the joke. But outside of irony, are clichés something you want in your writing?

Clichés are the words and phrases that come to your mind when you write your first draft. They are the language you hear and use when gossiping with your pals. Put simply, in writing, clichés are bland and overused phrases that fail to excite, motivate, and impress your readers or prospective buyers.

Two years back, when I read great copy, or compelling writing in general, I was sucked into it and couldn’t pop my head out until I reached the last full-stop. I wondered what was in such a writing that made it so irresistible.

I kept wondering until I became a blogger, and saw writing from a writer’s standpoint. I discovered that it was the clever use of words that hypnotized me. It was the art of presenting routine stories in such ways that left a deep imprint on my mind.
And, yes, it was writing that engaged my attention by avoiding clichés.

Clichés are boring

What makes clichés so boring? The fact that clichés are so generic you can attach them to any idea makes them ineffective.
Given that clichés are the phrases that have struck our eardrums uncountable times, we either don’t associate them with particular ideas and products, or we associate many products and ideas with a particular cliché.

Maybe a cliché was a unique expression when you first came across it, but since then, you have heard it repeated so many times, it has lost all the original shine.

Remember what radio show hosts say when they announce a commercial break? They usually go like “Stay tuned. We’ll be back after a short break“. The problem with the cliché “stay tuned” is obvious. It makes us yawn.

Whenever I hear a host announce the break, I tune into another station. But on this Sunday, when I was listening to a music show at a local FM station, and as usual the break time came, the host of the show emphatically said “Don’t tune into another channel while we bother you with a few commercials, there are some very special songs on the other side of the break“.

The host didn’t use the ineffective cliché, and he got my attention with his unique presentation of a boring announcement.

Well, I did stay tuned.

Going cliché hunting!

Now, if you start writing with strong phrases, you are going to run into a problem. You might overdo it, and your writing might start looking artificial.

A very straightforward solution to this is to let the clichés come.

As I noted in above lines, clichés are the very first thoughts that occur to you about an idea, and they help you quickly figure out what’s on your mind. It makes sense to get the general ideas out of your head before coming down hard on unworthy expressions.

But when you are done writing, equip yourself with the right armory, and snipe at them clichés one by one!
Replace clichés with more energetic, invigorating, and exciting phrases. Phrases that give your copy a unique aura and hypnotize your readers.

Here are some examples of clichés and their alternatives.

  • Cliché: It was an emotional scene.
  • Original: It was a scene so sad that I had to look away. (long but not trite)
  • Cliché: Our product sold like hotcakes.
  • Original: We sold out the whole stock in just a week.
  • Cliché: Lost hope? Don’t give up on life yet!
  • Original: Ran out of reasons to live? We’ll give you one!

See… it is easy as pie (whatever that means).

What about you? Do you tolerate clichés in your writing?

Check out Blogging Bits for more blogging-related content from Mohsin.

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  1. Do you tolerate clichés in your writing?

    Sure, sometimes. And some of the top copywriters in the world do as well.

    Most clichés are metaphors, and they became overused because they were highly effective at communicating an idea instantly using visual language. So, there are times when a cliché may be the perfect thing to get a point across.

    It all comes down to judgment, which is pretty impossible to teach. I think stale, overused metaphors are not something you want littered throughout your copy, but the occasional cliché may actually help more than it hurts.

    Again, it’s up to the writer’s judgment and the needs of the audience.

    And that’s the point, right? Top copywriters aren’t worried about winning literary awards, they’re focused on getting ideas understood as efficiently as possible.

    So, generally, avoid clichés. But if you seek to eliminate them at every turn when the needs of your audience might dictate otherwise, you’re actually more worried about how you appear instead of how well you’re communicating.

  2. Not sure of the source, but a while back I heard this gem:

    “Clichés are phrases that have been worked to death, but refused a proper burial.”

  3. In my day-to-day, face-to-face sales career I have to use cliches (metaphors) to help the listener along the path to discovery.

    Sometimes, they’e the only way or best way to get the listener to ‘see’ what I’m talking about.

    A visual image is 10X more powerful than a singular word and ‘some’ cliches are much more powerful than any original phrase.

    The result is what matters, not originality.

    I believe it might have been Rosser Reeves ( help me out here BC ) that said ” Always improve, never invent.” and ” Originality is death ( in advertising ).”

    What that means is simply this:

    Don’t change a phrase (cliche) just to change it. Unless you improve it, don’t invent it.

    As Brian said, using them judiciously, which only comes with experience, is like walking a tightrope ;-)

  4. I try my darndest to get rid of them. Sometimes you have to think outside the box to cut through the clutter of the cliches that litter my brain.

    Seriously, anybody seen any good alternatives to “cut through the clutter?”

  5. What bothers me more is the INCORRECT use of a cliche. If you’re going to use one, I would hope that you understand the words and you aren’t using it because it seems appropriate.

    Think this through, it probably SEEMS appropriate because it’s been worked to death. (there’s another cliche)

  6. Metaphor is essential to speech and thinking. I think of a cliché as a metaphor that has out lived its usefulness. “easy as pie probably did well in the 50’s — but now? I find making pie rather difficult.

    What metaphors today will become clichés in the future?

    Aaron

  7. I agree with Mike that it is more of a judgment call. There are times when a cliché seems necessary in order to get a point across. I’ve worked in sales for a long time and I hate to say it; there are frequent times when you need to “dumb” down how you speak in order to get the results you are looking for.

  8. I beg to differ, but from time-to-time a well placed cliche can be perfect, especially when you writing in a conversational tone.

    People use cliches in everyday life constantly and if you are going to connect with them on their level, sometimes a cliche is perfect.

    The key is to not overuse them and to make certain the context is correct. I think part of the reason cliches are often overused is too many people try to squeeze them into conversations where they have no real pertience.

  9. Cliches: Right On Durango.
    The following article was published in The Country Register last year. It sold like hotcakes!

    Creative Confessions
    Clichéd Confessions
    By Maggie Milne Chicoine

    The cliché just slipped out. “A stitch in time, saves nine,” I said. The young woman I was mentoring didn’t answer but her head tilted like a young puppy waiting for a favourite snack. In this case, though, her blank stare told me that she did not have a clue about the nuances of doing what you need to do well, the first time. So I explained. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve never heard that before!”

    Que sera, sera. Live and learn. Don’t worry, be happy. Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. After all, we should know that it’s best to always look on the bright side of life.

    That day, it was obvious that the Millenium generation and I, representing the Boomers, use distinctive phrases, proverbs and clichés to get our ideas across. Actually, short idioms are the clues to what we believe to be true about how our life works: what is right and what is wrong. How we phrase metaphors can help us to understand the fine distinctions of ethical behavior. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Only time will tell. We are just waiting for our ship to come in. No news is good news. Isn’t it?

    Why is this important you might ask as you read between the lines. This is the inside track on how to be a better listener. (Studies have shown that most people are not as astute as they think they are. Instead of hearing the message, they are already constructing their defense. They lose the innuendo. Nobody’s perfect. I’m only human. The devil made me do it. It seemed like a good idea at the time!)

    Big Tip: Ask Really Good Questions

    When you hear a cliché, proverb or a metaphor, ask a question that will get you more information. Then clamp your lips and listen. Really good stories are usually attached to a common phrase. For example, suppose you hear your aunt saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Ask her about her tough stuff. What happened? How did she figure out what to do? “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” she might say. Ask another question. Hmmm, you might learn something since every cloud has a silver lining. We all know it’s darkest before the dawn, but it sure feels good to know we’re not alone. This too shall pass.

    Do you ever find yourself saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover. Beauty is only skin deep.” How about, “There is nothing to fear except fear itself”. Each of these statements, which are so common to the ear, hold truths about how life happens within us and around us. Each of us interprets the meanings in our very unique ways, with vibrant interpretations based on the way we see the world.

    Have you noticed the poster on the office wall that says, “Poor planning on your part does not create an emergency on my part”? Your colleague is telling you a ton about how they expect others to manage their workloads. Do you agree? Enough said. Time will tell!

    What about, “All is fair in love and war”. Is it? When the romance disintegrates, do you think it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? There are plenty of fish in the sea. No point crying over spilt milk. Are you really better off alone?

    Gathering verbal data has been a hobby of mine for years. I guess my grandmother believed that you shouldn’t avoid clichés like the plague and an old dog can learn new tricks. She taught me to listen deeply and heartily by helping me to hear the every day conversations around me.

    Be my guest; take your bag of clichés to the next dinner party and enjoy the buffet of beliefs while you get tanked up. Have a chat with another generation. You might hear the term SNAFU again. Who is that doll who is a real barn burner? Why not start listening today? It is the first day of the rest of your life.

    -30-

    “Experience Speaks, with a twist of ingenuity.” Maggie Chicoine is celebrating 21 years as a professional speaker, trainer and Master Coach. Her messages are delivered with impact, humour and memorable stories. Reach her at http://www.theideasculptor.com or 1 800 587 1767 (North America toll free).

  10. I don’t think a chiche is always bad. But I think sometimes people overdo them, and that’s what gets ya!

  11. I see your point but I also strongly believe that what Brian said is true- Clichés have their place in all types of copy and you’d be a fool not to use them when they fit the piece perfectly.

    I did like your alternatives though. There are also clichés that aren’t so known that you could use too.

  12. Some clichés don’t even make much sense when you think about them. Apples and oranges isn’t really accurate because apples and oranges are really quite similar. Both are more or less round. Both grow on trees. And both are fruit.

    If you wanted a true expresssion of how different things are, you should say “like apples and potatoes”.

  13. Why stop there? How about apples and orangutans?

    Oh come on, that’s good.. I don’t care who you are. :-)

  14. Thank you for writing this. This drives me nuts.

  15. I avoid cliches like the plague.

    ;)

  16. There’s a time to be like your audience (cliches are ok, in moderation) and a time to wake your audience up (avoid wallpaper language including cliches). Brian’s right on the money that you have to have the judgment to know which is which.

    With the state of information clutter, though, I do think that avoiding invisible language like cliches is an important tactic to think about.

    I gotta say, I would absolutely use “compare apples to orangutans” in an ad. :) (Hmm, I have some good orangutan stock, maybe I can get a blog post out of it …)

  17. Some cliches are proven to sell. For me, it all comes down to testing. I will not avoid using a cliche just for the sake of wanting to sound original. There has to be a concrete reason not to use it.

  18. Some “food for thought” from two copywriters who know a thing or two about selling with words:

    “I love clichés, and you should too! They are clichés precisely because everyone already believes them, so using them gives your copy greater credibility.”

    -Gary Bencivenga
    http://bencivengabullets.com/bullets.asp?id=25

    “Most Writing Today Does Not Contain Enough Cliches!”

    -Gary Halbert
    http://www.thegaryhalbertletter.com/Newsletters/askh_fighter_pilot_attitude.htm

  19. So, generally, avoid clichés. But if you seek to eliminate them at every turn when the needs of your audience might dictate otherwise, you’re actually more worried about how you appear instead of how well you’re communicating.

    Sure. It comes down to whether a copywriter uses a cliche or it sneaks into his writing without his knowledge. :)

  20. Todd,

    We’ve begun to “cut through the clutter” with our new mantra…”Shut up and Say it”. What do we really want our audience to hear?

    “Murder your darlings!” — JP Kelly

  21. Hi There Mohsin. I try to avoid cliches, but I don’t stress too much if some slip through.

    The trouble is, cliches became overused because they are good; and at one time they were also original.

    The one I really get sick of reading – especially in titles is “Food For Thought.”

  22. @ Ben. I was waiting for someone to drop those. I seem to also recall David Garfinkel coming out in favor of clichés, at least strategically employed.

    If you’re aiming at the black-clad hipster crowd, I would definitely avoid clichés, ummm… like the plague.

    But regular folks? I think they actually appreciate an instantly understandable statement every once and awhile.

    And as James said above, it’s almost impossible to write in an authentic, conversational voice without clichés. Try paying attention to how many you use and hear in day-to-day conversation for a shocker.

  23. You hit home when you talked about presenting your ideas with the intent to make readers want to read more.

    It comes down to knowing how to write to initiate the senses. When a writer makes me see, taste, and experience a scene, it immediately sucks me in and makes me want to read further.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.

  24. Brian’s follow-up comment to the main article basically summarized my feelings. Avoiding clichés is generally a good thing, but sometimes (though probably not often), a cliché is the best phrase to use. They are often cliché because they work really well as a metaphor. Still, if you use them too often, your copy will end up sounding the same as every other piece of generic copy, and generic copy doesn’t sell.

  25. If you wanted a true expresssion of how different things are, you should say “like apples and potatoes”.

    I don’t know…the French for potato is pomme de terre, which translates as “apple of the earth.”

    Of course, I know what you’re point is. :)

  26. Erm…”your” point. Not “you’re” point. I hate when I notice glaring typos only AFTER I’ve posted them.

    And, now that I’ve posted 3 comments in a row, I think I should just stop typing.

  27. Now that’s Thinking Outside The Box! Wait, I need to come from another angle.

    It’s as if you’re not in the same box as everyone else thinks from.

    You’re like the guy who looks at all the people in the box and goes “what are they thinking!”

    There’s this box. Everyone else is in it. But you’re not.

    I give up.

  28. Jack, there is no box. :-)

  29. Guess I was barking up the wrong tree. But that’s neither here nor there.

  30. Pie is hard to make. I have tried to make crust and can’t cut it. Were you trying to say quiche? Quiche is easy if you use a ready-pie crust. Don’t mean to be crusty, but I am in a click that expects men to be real. They eat quiche. But, most like a good ole’ cherry pie. No pie intended!

  31. Pie is difficult to make well, so there goes that one. I also never understood why anyone on earth would need to skin a cat at all, let alone need nine ways to do it. That’s just sick.

    I can see how cliches are useful in copywriting because they are shortcuts we all know well, which actually makes communication easier. I like Mohsin’s point about making sure they’re in there because you meant them to be vs. because you’re not paying attention to what you’re writing.

  32. Scott (post 14)…I’m going bananas trying to figure out if your wording was intentional or not.

  33. Mohsin,

    I disagree. There has been a fair amount of research done showing that clichés work incredibly well to certain types of shoppers, while others benefit from Technical selling. I go into detail about the differences and advantages of each here:
    http://www.pinnycohen.com/2007/01/14/marketing-wisdom/technical-selling-vs-cliche-selling/

  34. Am I the only copyblogger reader from outside the U.S?
    As I skimmed through the many comments to this blog I expected to find at least one reference to global audiences who are often non-native English speakers/readers and may not understand cliches.

    I fully agree that copywriting is improved when cliches are used sparingly and substituted for what we really mean. An added benefit is that you are also ensuring that any English-as-second-language readers you may have also get the full gist of your intent.

  35. That’s a good point Kipflur! We do at times tend to forget that our clichés and slang confuse others.

    btw making pie is easy. I make an awesome Dutch Apple Pie. The crust is just flour and water for the most part.

  36. In Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman made a similar observation about apples and oranges. He suggested making comparisons between apples and baby wolverines, uranium and the early work of Raymond Carver. Significantly larger differences than oranges, don’t you think?

  37. I wouldn’t dump a good cliché in general. It’s about your style of writing, the subject, and your audience. Sometimes, a well-placed cliché can just do the trick, because it communicates a picture.

    And pictures are woth more than 1000 words.

  38. @ Michael Martine, you obviously don’t know my brother’s cat!

    @ Mohsin, great article. It looks like you really hit a nerve here.

  39. ‘Well blow me down!’ I am a new blogger. Upon reading your posts to improve my site, as recommended by my friend, I immediately had to go in and edit out the “stay tuned” on one of my posts. Uhg. So embarrassing. Thanks for the tip! Looking forward to ‘catching up to speed’ with the rest of what you have to say. — the cliché criminal Jaden

  40. Cliches = spam

  41. I think it goes back to KNOW YOUR TARGET….sometime your audience will relate better to a clich’e. If thats what it takes to make your point…then so be it.

  42. I recently read “POP! Stand Out in Any Crowd” by Sam Horn (great read btw) where she suggests rearranging cliches to make them original. One example she gives is Loretta Laroche’s book “Squeeze The Day: 365 Ways to Bring More Joy and Juice into Your Life”

    I agree – taking something that is familiar and putting a witty twist to it is an effective form of communicating.

  43. To see a list of cliches or use or to avoid, check out http://www.clichesite.com.

  44. I woke up on the beach and looked around to get by bearings. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. I looked up toward the sun to gauge the time and I felt a trickle of sweat roll down my back. That is when I noticed that my skin was tight and I knew I had been out here too long. Last night was all fun and games but tomorrow there would be hell to pay.

    Writing is supposed to convey a thought or idea from one person to another. Now tell me what I did not write but effectively conveyed with clichés.

    I slept on the beach.
    I was not sure how I got there.
    I had been drinking.
    I did not know what time it was.
    It was hot on the beach.
    I was getting sun burned.
    I had apparently been act a party.
    Hell to pay, well use your imagination?

    These clichés are tried and true phrases that absolutely get the message across and should not only be used but embraced. Only a dullard would not understand this.

  45. I think it goes back to KNOW YOUR TARGET….sometime your audience will relate better to a clich’e. If thats what it takes to make your point…then so be it.

  46. Did I miss it? Not one person here commented on the incorrect “use” of the cliche, “easy as pie”? I’ll get to that in a second. The worst example these days of a hackneyed phrase is the continued use of the fill-in-the-blanks tagline, “changing ____, one ____ at a time.” This has been around for years and some companies are still using it as a new tagline! Even a new bank out West that’s changing banking ‘one customer at a time.’ Really???!!!

    Pie time. It’s not “as easy as PIE”; it’s as easy as “Pi,” which is ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is a real, yet abstract forumala and not so simple for anyone who doesn’t like geometry. That’s the point. When someone says something is as easy as Pi, they’re actually saying it’s complicated.