Been There

Learning to dodge clichés

Hurricane Earl was a monster, a Category 4 storm. Along the East Coast from North Carolina to New England, news organizations leaped into action. Most forecasts kept the storm offshore, but some of the possible tracks showed it hitting the Outer Banks head on. Or it could smash into Long Island, or Cape Cod.

But it didn’t. It caused some damage, produced a lot of rain, and forced many people to rethink their Labor Day weekend plans. But overall, Earl was more of a media event than a disaster.

Still, Earl fit a forecasting pattern: Warnings followed by clichés. Among the most common was “We dodged a bullet.” It’s often used when a major snowstorm, rainstorm, or other meteorological phenomenon isn’t as bad as it might have been, or as bad as one might have expected given the amount of news coverage it got.

“Dodged a bullet,” though, gained a bad reputation in 2005, when many news organizations used it in reference to Hurricane Katrina right after it passed New Orleans. That was before they found themselves in very deep water.

Clichés and other set phrases that seem to appear as frequently as ants to a picnic are useful, of course. Because they’re so common, nearly everyone will understand what you mean. And they are easy, frequently presenting themselves unbidden as you’re writing. They are so embedded in language that it’s impossible, as the clichéd advice goes, to avoid them like the plague.

Still, clichés—and their close cousins, modifiers that seem melded to nouns, like “software giant” and “Microsoft”—show a certain lack of imagination on the part of a writer. And they tend to run in cycles, sometimes tied to popular culture, such as “the right stuff” (movie), “yada yada yada” (television program), and “wardrobe malfunction” (wardrobe malfunction). Wait too long, and even a cliché sounds as if it’s been there, done that.

Most of the time, a cliché is used to dramatize something that is pretty humdrum. (To say that an area “was not damaged” by Hurricane Earl is pretty unexciting; “dodging a bullet is active and a bit scary.) But, by definition, a cliché is also trite, overused, or hackneyed.

Because readers are so used to clichés, the attempt to bump it up a notch might pass unnoticed. So instead of going for the tried and true, play with a cliché. Just make sure the twist fits the circumstance; don’t make light of serious situations. At the crowded opening of the new hamburger stand, for example, say there were more people “than you could stick a shake at.” When a hurricane brushes past, write about “the storm before the calm.” (Warning: “Between Iraq and a hard place” is already overused.)

You don’t have to give clichés the boot; just give them new souls.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.