A Tip for Writing for the Web: Avoid the Cliché

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An excerpt from Writing for the Web by Crawford Kilian

Avoid clichés like the plague. A cliché is a phrase or expression that was once so new and surprising that everyone repeated it. Like an unspoiled tourist destination ruined by too many tourists, the cliché loses its whole reason for existence when everyone uses it.

Clichés have several forms. Proverbial clichés include the stitch in time that saves nine, too many cooks spoiling the broth, and the ounce of prevention that saves a pound of cure. Sometimes you can get away with these by letting readers know that you know you’re offering a stale but barely usable term: “Here’s the proverbial ounce of prevention that will save you a pound of cure.” This sentence may still be hard for people to understand if they’ve grown up with the metric system.

Slangy clichés have the embarrassing look of someone who thinks the 70’s are still happening. When you read terms like uptight, outasight, and far out, you’re dealing with someone in a time warp (if that’s not a cliché too).

If you’re very careful you may be able to get away with dead slang if you use it ironically. “kewl” for “cool” is an attempt to do so-though not a successful attempt. (Scholars of slang may recall that before “cool” took over in the late 1950s, the “hepcats” described anything really admired as “real George.” That one, at least, died a merciful death.)

Trendy clichés are a little different. Slang tends to come from marginal groups like ethnic minorities; trendy clichés come from the mass media’s journalists and commentators, the “chattering classes” (there’s a trendy cliché in itself). People who write or speak for a living tend to use yet another cliché to drink each other’s bathwater. One of them will come up with an unusual word or phrase, and everyone else seizes it. Before you know it, everyone on CNN or the editorial page of your local paper is talking about interfaces, closure, and empowerment.

When you look at a website, pay attention to the text. Does it resort to clichés or jargon? Can you imagine why the writer used them? And can you imagine how the text might read with the clichés removed?

You might try downloading text from a site and then revising it to remove all clichés. You’re likely to find that your version is much stronger and more effective than the original.

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