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Friday, November 6, 2009

Writer Mag Column 11: Avoiding Generic Words and Cliches

Spice up your writing: Avoid generic words and clichés

Are you one of those people who eats the same dinners every week? Meatloaf on Monday, spaghetti and meatballs on Tuesday, etc., etc.? If this describes your eating habits, your palate might welcome some new flavors. And if you write the same way—using the same old generic vocabulary and clichés again and again—your readers might appreciate fresh words and some spice in your writing.

After all, readers enjoy specific, entertaining prose, not vague sentences that anyone could write. If you've been reading this column regularly, you know that I've complained about a number of vague and wordy ways of writing. You've seen how to replace weak verbs with better ones and how to use clear subjects along with your clear verbs. Now it's time to do more: stop using general nouns and adjectives, and get out of that box—I mean, stop using clichés so often.

Writers slip into using generic vocabulary when they are writing a first draft or are too tired to come up with anything better. If you have jet lag, I suppose I can excuse you. Otherwise, think harder and use your imagination, please. Here's a short list of words that you can almost always replace with something more specific:

• People/person
• Man
• Woman
• Thing
• Bad
• Good
• Interesting
• Different

These meat and potato words are neither good nor interesting to read. "The man was bad" just doesn't cut it. Of course, when you're scribbling out a first draft, feel free to use generic words, but when you're polishing, vary your vocabulary. Perk up your prose by adding a bit of frisée, a few parsnips or other uncommon ingredients.

When searching for the right word to impress your readers, you could spend a lot of time using a thesaurus, but I don't want you to do that. Pompous-sounding and out-of-place vocabulary attracts negative attention. Readers don't want to try to remember the meaning of an SAT word every paragraph. Nor do they relish whipping out their dictionaries too often. I once read a book that used the word "fissiparous" numerous times. You won't be surprised to hear that I almost put the book down numerous times. I stuck with it, though, because I did want to hear about the Battle of Hastings. I had to force myself to overlook the writer's atrocious professorial style so that I could learn all about 1066.

Although the thesaurus is out, I do want you to spend a few extra seconds to be more precise with your descriptions. You could say that I mean for you to "go the extra mile," but that would be a cliché!

The first person who wrote "think outside the box" was very creative; these days, though, that is a tired phrase and I never want to see it again. Understandably, you don't want to "reinvent the wheel," so you're tempted to use familiar phrases. In other words, you're tempted to be lazy. But it's a bad idea to "beat a dead horse to death." Here's a short list of clichés to "put out to pasture":

• Going forward
• Strong as an ox
• Looking ahead to the future
• Cutting edge
• As big as a house
• Pushing the envelope

When readers encounter phrases they've seen over and over, they don't pay much attention. They may even roll their eyes. Inventive ways of putting words together, on the other hand, jump out at readers and make them remember what you've written. You write to be creative, don't you? Now is your opportunity.

Of course, you don't want to write something overly bizarre, although I do admit it might be briefly entertaining to pen the words "she scribbled like a fairy eating rutabagas." Just like overly fancy vocabulary, words that don't go together attract negative attention.

Let's practice not writing like everyone else. Here's a drab paragraph that is similar to what you might read in an unimaginative marketing piece. (Pity me because I get to edit a lot of such drivel.) Please "bite the bullet" and cook up something a bit better.

Criminal Paragraph:
The company is committed to providing quality products and timely, cost-effective solutions to customers, and years of knowledge and understanding have helped the people be good at their jobs. The workers meet their customers' needs every day, and going forward, they plan to meet their most challenging requirements. The products that the company offers are top quality and can't be beat. In addition, the company can quickly and accurately identify the necessary steps to ensure complete satisfaction and overall success.

Please send your rewrites to I look forward to reading your spicy concoctions. Anything you write is bound to be an improvement. Be as creative as you like, and be sure to add some ingredients I haven't seen before.

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