(This appeared in Newsday’s Act2 section)
This is about death and taxes. Not the message in that familiar expression, a banality concerning fatalistic certainties. Rather, the subject here is clichés. As a practicing wordsmith all my life — and I do mean “practicing” — I am painfully aware of being forever engaged in the battle to avoid stock phrases. To instead think, you know, outside the box. To conjure novel descriptions that are just the ticket. Find terms that fit the bill.
It’s important to document that in my profession, journalism, the endless struggle to present the most pertinent, accurate information — and do so concisely — regularly happens on deadline. The clock is ticking and the urgency to put things into the ideal lingo, to avoid worn-out images and overused idioms, is no picnic.
Over and over, you’re faced with the perfect storm. A real can of worms. You’re under the gun. Up the creek without a paddle. Sweating bullets. And since handy clichés are a dime a dozen, avoiding them at all costs is a tough row to hoe.
Still, I believe in the need to constantly keep up the guard against lazy, trite prose. I read where the French poet Gerard de Nerval said, “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet. The second, an imbecile.” Likewise, while the original employment of the expression “dodging a bullet” landed as a brilliantly vivid metaphor, the subsequent ad nauseam use of that figure of speech is beating a dead horse.
This is why I admonish my college sports journalism students to avoid clichés like the plague.
But that can be a slog. It was once noted by the late Roger Kahn (of “Boys of Summer” fame) that good writing is “what amateurs call effortless” because it is so easy on the reader, yet its production is just the opposite of leisurely. “Everyone who has written seriously,” Kahn wrote, “knows that sustaining a flowing style is as effortless as cleaning the Augean stables with a water pistol.”
Avoiding hackneyed verbiage, painting word pictures in precise, fresh language, is an admirable and enviable thing that disguises the labor involved. To compose sentences, paragraphs, chapters, that are clear as a bell is the holy grail of all us scribblers.
In an interview several years ago with The Atlantic, Russell Baker, the late award-winning columnist for The New York Times, argued that “if you haven’t sweated over [a piece of writing], it’s probably not worth it. … The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”
Stephen King, the crafty author of suspense and horror, has described spending weeks and months and even years settling on the first sentences of a novel to properly get the show on the road.
Easier said than done, obviously. Clichés — as common as dirt — constantly are lurking in the subconscious, giving the writer a quick and trouble-free solution. And the problem is that clichés function in such generalized terms, without specifics appropriate to the occasion, that they render the writing dull as dishwater. The been-there-done-that sense depresses impact. Makes the composition go over like a lead balloon.
Not surprisingly, you win some and you lose some. Surely, though, continued exertion will reveal the light at the end of the tunnel. As long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew. Leave no stone unturned. Keep plugging away.
At the end of the day, all’s well that ends well.