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Free advice

A reader of this blog once asked, I hope innocently, “What’s wrong with cliches?”

One answer is provided by Frank Kermode, writing about Martin Amis in Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism, 1958-2002:

“The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later. Cliches are an infallible symptom of used thinking.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (4)


I know I wondered aloud in your direction on that matter in the past. While I can't disagree with the sentiment, I still have to wonder if the effort taken in avoiding a cliche surmounts its generalized nature.

"Pain at the pump" may be trite at this point, but what it's trying to express is done easily, and avoiding it, while it could be better writing, could also lose a reader trying to wade through a phrase twice its length for the same result.

Once, after I cut "rain didn't dampen the spirits" for the 1,000th time, I was confronted by a city editor for a then-great Midwestern newspaper who finally sputtered, "I don't have a problem with clichés!"

There was nothing more for me to say.

I know nothing of Mr Kermode, but Mr Amis is one of the cleanest writers I've read. Also one of the most absorbing.

This is off topic, but the following ambiguous headline from Reuters just crossed my screen and I can't help mentioning it: "Zimbabwe's MDC to fight run-off against Mugabe." Considering that the MDC has in the past opposed any run-off election unless it was closely monitored by international observers, I took this to mean that their battle against the run-off was continuing. In fact, the headline should have read: "Zimbabwe's MDC accepts run-off against Mugabe" or something similar. One wonders if anyone at Reuters read this headline a second time.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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