I know, there’s nothing original about saying that writers shouldn’t use clichés. This post is therefore a cliché in itself.

Still, I wanted to.

Technical communication doesn’t deal with clichés as often as fiction does (or marketing, which, let’s face it, is just its own genre of fiction). But the other day I read the phrase “dead as a doornail,” and I thought I’d spend a couple of minutes on the subject.

By the way, if you’ve never heard the expression “dead as a doornail,” then I give you permission to insert any other cliché in its place. I will hold no grudge.

Sometimes we write clichés without even noticing that we’re doing it. It’s hard to avoid. And sometimes we write them ironically, or humorously. But sometimes, I think that people just don’t know how to avoid them, or they even think that clichés are a general good because they’re instantly recognizable. Everyone knows what “dead as a doornail” means, right?

Well, yes, everyone knows what dead as a doornail means, but that doesn’t make it good writing. Everyone would know what “dead as a plate of spaghetti” means, too, but they might enjoy the visual a little more.

Giving more than the facts

Which I think may be the point. Clichés don’t give the reader anything to think about. No one thinks about a doornail when hearing that phrase. I don’t even know what a doornail is. The audience gets the point, but nothing extra.

When someone says “I avoid it like the plague,” I don’t think about the plague. I just know that there’s some avoiding going on. But if someone said, “I avoid it like ears avoid Mike Tyson,” then I get more than just the main point (avoiding). I get a little morsel of extra meaning. You might not think it’s funny, but at least it’s memorable. At least I’m CREATING.

For every cliche, I can substitute something better. As you can see from my “avoid” attempt, it doesn’t take genius. Almost anything is better than a cliché, and almost anyone can do it.

“He was as red as a lollipop” is better than “he was as red as a lobster,” even though many lollipops aren’t red. The writer doesn’t have to work hard to think up lollipops as a substitute. It doesn’t take Dickens, but the end result gets you a little closer to Dickens. And Dickens was the cat’s meow fabulous wrapped in chocolate.

From A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens:

Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a doornail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a doornail.


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