Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lead us not into temptation

Resisting the seduction of clichés

(This post first appeared here in August of 2005.)

Public relations writers fall for them. Reporters are lured by them. Communications veterans across the spectrum succumb to the sweet talk of the ever-present, easily accessible cliché. No writing style is immune to these overused phrases, even fiction. The media biz coined a term for these expressions - "groaners." If you're looking for a surefire way to annoy your audience, take the easy way out and slip a series of groaners into your copy. describes a groaner as "a hackneyed, overblown, stuffy or just plain silly cliché that turns up time after time in news scripts. Groaners show laziness on the part of writers, disrespect for the folks watching, and a general contempt for lively English." I agree. When it comes to many of these euphemisms, I believe in taking quick corrective action. Arrest these overused phrases. Blindfold them, give them a cigarette and place them before a firing squad.

When it comes to groaners, seasoned journalist Abe Rosenberg does a great job of identifying some of the worst offenders, often heard in TV news broadcasts. Here is a sampling of groaners from

Area residents - “Shhh, Tommy, don’t play the drums so loud. You’ll wake the area residents!” Normal people don’t refer to their neighbors this way. Why should we?

Famed - “Mommy, mommy, I just saw somebody famed over there!” When did “famous” become a dirty word?

Lay the Groundwork - Doesn’t anybody “prepare” anymore? Too many writers cling to these phrases (“Set The Stage” is another example) when talking about politics, foreign policy, war and peace, etc., as if big phrases made a story important. Important facts make a story important. References to theater and construction belong in stories about theater and construction.

Motorists - Where have all the drivers gone? Don’t fall into the DMV Handbook trap.

Somewhere, some wordsmith is hoping that I'll ease up on folks who like to incorporate clichés into their copy. I'm not completely heartless. As a journalist and PR practitioner, I have fallen into the same trap.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you want your copy to "sing," write as if you're holding a conversation with someone. Put your best foot forward. Work like a dog. Leave a lasting impression. In the end, your copy will be the best thing since sliced bread. Just do it.

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Shirazi said...

This is a very useful piece. And one doenst have to be a PR person to know that.

Ian Lidster said...

This is wonderfully good. I want to keep it. Just thought I would check in today and there you were. I miss you between postings.

Deb S. said...

Shi: As always, thank you. I need to touch base with you to find out what's new and exciting in your world.

Ian: Hearing from you does my heart good. I miss me between postings, too. :-)
I've put together a couple of drafts. Let's hope that they get posted soon.

Right now, I am reading The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. What an interesting work by this Canadian author!

Shi and Ian, I hope all is well in your world.