How to use clichés effectively (without them destroying your copy)

Words, when at their best, should be seducing you.

With a sentence like “She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck, like the brush of fur”, you can immediately feel the sensations and visualise what’s happening.

But where we get into trouble with words is when we start over-using certain words and phrases.

It’s when they start becoming clichés.

We all do this from time to time. Sometimes, even our own phrases end up being used far too often.

Since they’re so common, how do we go about making friends with clichés so they’ll benefit our copy?

And how do you prevent their damaging nature from presenting you as someone you’re not?

Which someone is that?

Keep reading.

When being original changed

So what is a cliché anyway? How does a word full of images become something you want to run away from?

Well, let’s think about a few of the clichés out there already. Here’s some:

Raising the bar

The sky’s the limit

Kill two birds with one stone

A bull in a china shop

All hands on deck

Think out of the box

Now at some point in time, when each phrase was originally created, pre-cliché, each one was doing the perfect job of evoking an image in the reader’s mind.

Think about the phrase ‘all hands on deck’.

No doubt, the first time it was used, you would see people urgently coming together and acting as one to make something happen. Deck, being of a ship, you’d imagine all the crew scrambling to get their ship ready.

So how did this become a cliché?

Over time, due to over-use, these phrases no longer conjured up images. No longer conjure up metaphors.

Nowadays, when people simply reach for these words without thinking, and that’s why it has become a cliché. They’re nothing more than flat, plain, empty words now.

As George Orwell described the problem:

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.

But in between those two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

What edge you lose

Do we really want our copy turned into a “huge dump of worn-out metaphors” and lacking in power and energy when read?

Of course not.

If you’re hoping to be taken seriously – especially when you’re starting out – you’ve got to try and avoid clichés.

You want your copy to feel original to you, and engaging to the reader. You want every phrase and sentence to resonate, instead of being skimmed over without any emotional reaction.

You want to avoid working on a piece of copy that’ll turn out dull and boring. (There’s too much of that already on the web as it is, don’t add yourself to the pile.)

Even if you’re just providing instructions, you still want what you say to be memorable, or at least full of character and unique to you.

But when existing clichés abound, it can be hard to know what to use and what to avoid.

Take back your power

How do you know if you’re using one anyway? Here are some clues:

  • If the phrase you’re using evokes zero imagery, for instance something like ‘shoot for the moon’.
  • If you’ve seen the phrase used elsewhere, or heard someone else use it (as is common with cliches.)
  • If your phrase feels trendy or “in the now”. Because these will date your copy quickly, when the phrase goes out of date (which is also usually quickly.)

And when you’ve spotted a cliché, what next? Should you strike it from your copy? Not necessarily.

Rather than scribbling them out, all you need to do instead is explain what you actually mean by the cliché.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Instead of saying the sky’s the limit, you could explain how your project has many fascinating directions it could go in.
  • Instead of killing two birds with one stone, tell your readers how your new idea will solve two distinct problems at the same time.
  • If there is a bull in a china shop, proudly share how your latest idea shook up conventional thinking in your field and made your readers stop and stare.

That’s how you should be using clichés.

Where to go next

Clichés are ultimately for lazy writers. You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t care about their copy or has a limited vocabulary.

True, creating new copy IS hard – but it doesn’t have to be, if you can have fun with it.

Look for phrases no one else is using. Develop your own way of explaining things. Use clichés to help share with your readers all the amazing, interesting facts about your business and how it will help them.