Why? Because clichés become clichés through overuse; those popular phrases and expressions may have been interesting and innovative at first, but now they’re stale and boring.
Phrases like “hit the nail on the head” or “cool as a cucumber” are forgivable when you’re speaking or writing a quick email. But using them when you’re writing promotional copy or anything else that requires thought and rounds of drafts will leave many readers thinking, “Really? That’s all you could come up with?” And with that, they’ll dismiss you as a lazy writer or an unoriginal thinker. Either way, you won’t win their respect or attention.
Clichés are not completely useless to the communications writer. They can become effective again if you give them a twist:
Rather than simply using a cliché as is, add emphasis to your message by questioning or contradicting the expression. Of course, this is the easiest tactic so it’s frequently used. For example,“You can teach an old dog new tricks” is on its way to becoming a cliché itself, but for now it’s still an example of what I’m talking about. Various chapters of the Humane Society have this contradictory form of the expression in their online copy, and it’s been used in articles such as this Science Daily piece titled “You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks — With The Right Diet.”
Another example is “Big boys do cry” (also quite popular). An online search yielded a New York Times article titled “Big Boys Don’t Cry, Do They?” as well as several web page and blog titles that riffed off the expression.
Replace a Word
Another way to refresh a tired expression is by changing an essential word. You can keep the meaning the same but make the saying relate to specific type of tasks, for example,“another day, another deadline.” Or you can make the change slightly humorous as in “Jack of all trades, master of one.”
Elaborate on the Expression
I found a blog post titled “Ax Your Clichés: Why and How,” which suggested turning the imagery in a cliché into more of a metaphor. For example, if I described a person as “madder than a wet hen,” I may then go on to describe that person“squawking, flapping and practically dripping rage” as well as my efforts to calm his/her “ruffled feathers.”
These are just a few of the ways in which you can make a cliché interesting again. If you’d like some more inspiration, try out the How to Slay a Cliché blog in which the blogger rewrites a particular expression in several ways.
Finally, some people are not quite sure what phrases and expressions qualify as clichés. If you ever have doubts about a particular phrase, check out Cliché Site and while you’re at it, think about how you would change or enliven the expressions you like.