When we write, we want to reach readers. It’s not worth the effort if we don’t. So we often use familiar words and phrases that readers will understand. We turn to the images and allusions that we think our readers will identify. Sometimes, though, we choose the easy cliché or the worn metaphor to make our point. Writers need editors to help them see that their prose could use a fresher turn of phrase.
George Orwell’s six rules for writing, as quoted in the introduction to The Economist Style Guide, includes this: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” I would never go that far, but when a phrase has become so ubiquitous that it instantly provokes a sigh from a reader, then I think it’s an editor’s duty to let the writer hear that weary sigh.
I sighed at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning when I read this line from a New York Times book review, “Who was Randolph Caldecott? If the answer doesn’t trip off your tongue, you are hardly alone.” The “you are hardly alone” phrase (a variation of “you are not alone”) is meant to say to the reader, “Hey, don’t worry about your ignorance on this. Lots of people don’t know who this guy is.” But why waste a sentence on that? Just tell me who he was.
I had to edit myself when I wrote “roll with the punches” in this blog post. Not only was it a cliché, but it also overstated what I wanted to say. I changed it to “adjust.”