Those holiday cliches

An editor recently sent around a note in our office reminding writers and editors to avoid certain cliches that appear in copy and headlines during the holiday season. The list comes from John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun. Among the offending cliches are:

‘Tis the season’Twas the night before ChristmasThe Grinch steals …The Ghost of Christmas Past (and any other image from Dickens)Yes, Virginia

It’s true that journalists — in print, online and, it seems to me, especially in broadcast — fall back on familiar phrases at this time of year. And it’s true that those phrases have become dull and lifeless after many years of use. Cliches only work if they can be used with a fresh twist or in service to sharp irony.

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The worst thing about falling back on these cliches is that journalists aren’t stretching their writing muscles. They aren’t trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that could capture the reader’s attention and perfectly describe the situation. Like Dickens and Dr. Seuss, they need to create the memorable characters and indelible images that could become cliches for some future writer. Most writers I know do strive for that. They obsess over their words, and even though it drives me crazy on deadline, I admire them for it. In fact, I have been known to sweat and strain over a headline, trying hard not to do the expected and to write something that perfectly captures the essence of a story.

Sometimes, though, those familiar phrases seem to me like the battered Christmas tree ornaments that we drag down from the attic every year. They are out of date and not nearly as glossy and colorful as they were when they were new, but they still give us comfort and joy (sorry!). The cliches, like the ornaments, have heartwarming associations and durable appeal. Of course, those ornaments adorn only one family’s tree and are not inflicted upon the masses. Maybe that’s the key: You can write ’tis the season in your holiday cards and letters, but not in the newspaper.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.