Spelling it out for you: Clichés and the English language

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One great piece of advice to all writers in general: use your imagination. This is particularly important if you are wet behind the ears and covering a new beat. Sounds simple enough, right? Writing is one of those creative professions. You know, the ones where you are free to express yourself, explore your feelings, and be really … deep.

But wait. I’m putting the cart before the horse.

In one of our introductory sessions on interviewing techniques, Russell Contreras, reporter and Web editor for The Boston Globe, gave us some advice that had an enormous impact on me. In fact, in terms of journalistic advice, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. And believe me, we eat a lot of sliced bread at this institute.

It went something like this:

Russ: You know when you’re interviewing someone, particularly for a disaster story, and you ask him to describe the scene and they say, “It looked like a war zone”? Say, “Oh, really. Have you ever been to a war zone”? And if they haven’t, what they say next to explain what they meant, or to describe it in other words, is where you get your best quote. If they say yes, ask them to tell you about it. Again, you get a better description and a better quote.

A light bulb went off in our heads.

And I’ve been eliminating clichés from my vocabulary and stories every since.

His basic point was to stop being lazy. It’s a lot easier to describe something using common expressions or overly used phrases than it is to actually use your vocabulary and come up with something original.

So, on to the business at hand. How do you improve your writing and use your words more effectively?

Here’s a simple suggestion, from Russ: Read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” For your convenience, and for those who have certainly not read it, here are a few rules Orwell shares toward the end:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

And I would add, speak in layman’s terms. Sometimes using simple language is better than describing it in a “roundabout way.”

But remember, this is journalism — it’s a craft, not an exact science. So sometimes (very rarely) you may have to break the rules. After all, some things are cliché for a reason.

Orwell’s essay is actually a really good one and will undoubtedly improve your writing. Maybe not immediately, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take my advice. I guarantee it’s as good as gold.

— Arcynta Ali Childs

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