By Jacqui BanaszynskiClichés are to good writing as fill in your preferred cliché here.
A student of mine once challenged that notion. She insisted that clichés are a good thing: They are a universal shorthand — a way to make stories shorter and more understandable.
Rather than lecture, I threw several clichés out to the class, asking other students what they thought the phrases meant. (Bonus points if they knew the origins of a phrase that has become a cliché, and thus its original meaning.) A few came close, but most were in the “um, I think it’s sort of like when” camp. Generational differences quickly emerged, even with terms as basic as “one-horse town.” Most figured “party line” was a reference to politics rather than phone service. My era of pop culture references— think lines from early “Star Trek” and “Saturday Night Live” — was as foreign to them as Instagram influencers are to me. As for the actual foreign students in the class, one from China and another from India, they just looked dazed by it all; they were probably wondering how to explain this part of their spendy education to their parents back home.
The point was made. Mostly. But it led to some great questions. Students wanted to know why and when things go from fresh descriptions to tired clichés. How do they know when a common phrase makes writing conversational and when it makes it confusing? What about all the casual language used in broadcast? Isn’t it insulting to people with deep knowledge of a subject — maybe sports or hip-hop or business — to describe things in overly literal terms?
We brainstormed some solutions, mostly focused on platform and audience. Brief bits on radio and television allow more latitude for conversational phrasing; it’s how people talk in daily life, and context often carries enough meaning. Stories meant for a niche or speciality audience can rely on some level of insider language.
But I cautioned that clarity remains the prime directive of journalistic writing. So if you’re going to use a cliché, don’t do it because it’s easy. Do it in context, and make it fresh. Push it, turn it on its head, make it surprising, dare to make it original.
That’s harder to say than to do. It’s even hard to provide examples. So I was thrilled to come across one last week, from Charles P. Pierce. While Pierce’s primary gig is writing his Esquire politics blog, he got his start in journalism covering sports, and still draws on that world for a wide range of metaphors in writing about politics. He also is as good as anyone I read at drawing on references from religion, history, music, movies, literature and pop culture, then riffing those references into something new.
This week, he did it to anchor the first graf of a piece about the death and life of controversial college basketball coach Bobby Knight, who died at 83. It’s not your usual tribute; Pierce does not gloss over Knight’s dark side. And written for the employee-owned sports-and-culture site Defector, it sinks pretty far into sports minutiae.
You don’t need a key to that clubhouse to pull out some of the lessons in Pierce’s profile. He does it at the end, when he places Knight in the dark side of a Jekyll and Hyde frame. Scan through the basketball trivia to that end and you’ll see that, as well-known as that literary reference is presumed to be, Pierce resummarizes enough of the story to make the analogy work whether you’ve read the original or not.
And as for those clichés made new, all you need do is read the first paragraph, which closes with this fresh twist on a very tired phrase:
For many people in and around college basketball, Bob Knight’s career became an accelerated trip through a wilderness of last straws and an endless graveyard of camels who died of broken backs.
To use a sports cliché about Pierce’s writing — because in this context, why not: He shoots. He scores!