Cliches sap the life out of a story just like a whiff of sewage can ruin a supper party. Unfortunately, broadcast, web and print news writing is soaked with cliches. We have a profusion of raging brushfires, heavy winds and tragic accidents.
It's much better to tell simply and specifically what happened. Tempted to use a cliche? Get a good verb instead. That and a simile or metaphor will bring what you are trying to describe more vividly to life.
"The fire was so hot it melted the windows."
"Besides turning houses into unrecognizable piles of rubble, the hurricane's 160 mile-per-hour winds were powerful enough to propel shafts of straw into telephone poles. When the winds finally diminished, some of the poles looked as if they had been shot with thin arrows."
"The victim's head was pocked with dents where her attacker's hammer had struck."
Good reporters look for those telling details; the rest settle for a cliche. Even when using a specific simile or metaphor, it's easy to fall into the cliche trap. That applies to "arrow straight," "lightning fast," and "whirlwind tours."
If you have heard the phrase before, toss it out and create an original one.
Here are some phrases that long ago grew stale and hackneyed. It is merely a starter list - dozens more such overused phrases are dumped into news scripts every day.
Cliches are on the left; come up with a simpler word or phrase and insert it on the right.
- Against the backdrop -
- Bizarre twist -
- Choked with emotion -
- Comes as no suprise -
- Cutting edge -
- Doomed to failure -
- Drop in the bucket -
- Erupted in violence -
- Few and far between -
- Heated debate -
- Hotly contested -
- Lip service -
- Made off with -
- New lease on life - (what? the owner didn't renew the old one?)
- Naked eye - (ever seen a clothed one?)
- Media Circus -
- Pick and choose - (either one, but not both)
- Uphill battle - ( is it a downhill battle for the opponents)
Good writers avoid using extra words. Redundancies are like extra weights in the trunk of a car - they cause it to sag and go slower.
Here are some examples of common redundancies:
- Brutal murder - Is there such a thing as a gentle murder?
- Complete stranger - Can there be an incomplete stranger? Someone is either a stranger or not.
- Controversial issues - By definition, an issue is controversial. No need to use both words.
- Future plans - By definition, all plans are future.
- In fact - well, that's what we do in journalism, right?
- Nose dive - A dive is head (OK, nose) first. Otherwise, it's a jump
- Of course - So we don't need to say.
- Past history - By definition, all history is past.
- So-called - "Called" is fine; the "so" adds nothing.
- Tragic accident - Just say what happened and let the listener or viewer decide if its tragic.
- Unanswered questions - By definition, a question lacks an answer.
Next month, Jargon, technical language and legal pillows.
Jeff Rowe has been a journalist since 1975, reporting and producing news for television, radio, newspapers, magazines and online publications. He's been a broadcast writer for the Associated Press, a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and broadcast editor for The Orange County Register. His articles appear frequently here in SVN. His book, Broadcast News Writing for Professionals is used in high school and college journalism classes.It is available in soft cover from Marion Street Press.