Make it a cliche-free holiday

It’s the season when readers get bombarded with “tis the season.” And like the PA system in the mall blasting “fa, la, la, la, la” all day long, those holiday clichés can become rather annoying.

No matter how much you love the holidays, you don’t want to listen to the same song over and over — so why give your readers the same copy over and over. A better holiday present is something creative and fresh.

Jacqui Banaszynski, a University of Missouri School of Journalism professor and Poynter Institute visiting faculty member, said holiday headlines and stories are vulnerable to clichés because these subjects are usually done year after year.

“Holidays, anniversaries, weather, traffic accidents, graduation, the first day of school, victory and loss at sports. All can fall into the trap of clichéd thinking,” Banaszynski said.

In addition to the loss of attention resulting from repetition, holiday clichés run the risk of excluding readers who don’t understand your humor or point of reference. In today’s increasingly multicultural society, editors of all types — from newspapers to websites to corporate newsletters and communications — serve a diverse audience that may not share common cultural understanding. Using the shorthand of clichés sacrifices clarity for some readers.

“I can’t use metaphor comfortably unless I can trust that most of my readers understand it,” Banaszynski said. “Clichés are, in some way, the ‘sorry stepsister’ to metaphor.”

Clichés tend to pop up more when editors and writers are on deadline. Former ACES president John McIntyre, head of night content and production at the Baltimore Sun, said formulary language is easier to turn out when writers are in a hurry. To make it worse, writers usually don’t recognize the problem as they are focusing on their own text.

So in a fast-paced environment, it’s vital that copy editors be aware of the problems with using clichés.

University of Maryland professor Carl Stepp has served as a writing and editing coach for newspapers across the country and is a senior editor of American Journalism Review. His suggestion to combat clichés caused by deadline is “just take one more minute to think about how to rephrase it with another word.”

Banaszynski said the failure of clichés of all types is one topic she discusses with students in her classes. Her suggestion is, if you really want to use the cliché, rewrite it in a fresh way and create your own original phrase.

“Instead of a tornado sounding like a train, how about a tornado sounding like souls being torn apart, or the dismantling of man’s hubris?” Banaszynski said.

McIntyre suggested editors and writers use their imagination to create fresh and original expressions in the modern era.

“Writers and reporters are the people who state they’re imaginative and creative. Let them be,” he said.