Leveling the Playing Field on Cliches

Do you think that was a lazy headline? I hope so! It uses a cliche — "level the playing field" — that has no meaning. What playing field are we talking about?

You won't have to work hard to write a cliche. Your reader won't work hard to read one. That's the problem right there. They allow both reader and writer to be lazy, filling in the blanks without thinking.

I've gotten into a habit: When I see a cliché in an article or book I stop reading. Close the article. Put away the book. When something "skyrockets" in a news story it skyrockets right out of my hands and far away. What is a skyrocket, anyway? Aren't all rockets skyrockets?

Obvious grammatical errors also make me leave. When I read a sentence like "over 100 people cross this street every day" I cross to the other side of the street and stop reading. The expression is more than. Over is for age and for salaries. "She is making over $100,000 a year." "He was over sixty when he finally took his first tennis lesson and it nearly killed him."

Have you ever experienced something really unique? I hope not. Something is unique, or it isn't. There's no qualifier.

Will writers eventually clean up their act? Time will tell. "Time will tell" is a spineless way to end a thought. You hand over your powers of observation to Father Time, or somebody, and it saves you from drawing a conclusion. "Clean up their act." There's another one. It only works if you're doing a vaudeville act that is too blue for the room.

Writers suffer a lot but suffer most when writing bridges and transitions that are undeserved. Maybe you've read something like, "Amanda is not the only shop owner in Larchmont who believes that dogs smaller than cats shouldn't be allowed." Then the writer goes on to write about other shop owners in town. The "not-the-only" construction is a false grouping, a lazy way of transitioning. You get to use the other interviews you've done, at least, but it’s a vague, non-specific way to do so. Better to write: "Amanda thinks people who own small dogs should shop elsewhere. There are three other shop owners in Larchmont who agree with her. They have all had bad experiences with small dogs peeing on the merchandise." It doesn't inflate the trend, keeps the number specific, and might get a laugh.

I could go on, but you probably can't. Have you heard the expression, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger?" It's usually attributed to Nietzsche. He probably suffered from syphilis. Not a happy guy. If something is bad enough to nearly kill you, it will make you miserable, not stronger. Scratch that one also.

Let's stop this essay in the nick of time. (Ha!) I'll leave you with a short story about when I learned the meaning of the word cliché.

Before the digital world, I was interviewing a guy who wrote the subtitles for foreign films. Subtitles were done on a machine that set type like a printing press. To save time, common phrases could be preset. The metal plate that held the letters, words, and phrases was called a stereotype. The noise the plate made when the machine was running was a click that became known as a "cliché," — or so French printers, the originators of this technology, called it. A cliché came to mean a word or phrase that didn't change, could be repeated, could be slugged in without much thought.

Thanks for reading,


I usually don't acknowledge the world when writing these essays. This is purposeful. I mean for each 500 Words to be an escape into a philosophical dialogue about creative work. But our world has completely gone off the rails this past week. It has been hard to work in a vacuum while pretending to ignore what has been happening. I saw a movie last night that gave me some hope that the world might be re-balanced by caring people. It's called This Changes Everything. It's about achieving gender equity in Hollywood. If it comes around where you are, see it. I bet it will give you hope that people who work hard for positive change will achieve it.

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Hello. I'm Lee Schneider. Writer from Santa Monica, California, originally from NYC. Podcast producer. Podcast consultant. Recovering television producer. Married to a goddess. Co-founder of three children. I have a writing habit and a production habit that I exercise regularly.  I teach a media course for USC. If you have an idea for a podcast we can work on it together. Nice to see you here. This is a weekly email from me about living a creative life.