It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m standing at the back of a leadership class graduation, clapping enthusiastically as each of the 15 grads passionately address the crowd. A guy in his late 20s is relating his experience when suddenly, my ears pique.

“I don’t mean to sound cliché,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. (Oh, bring it my dear friend, I thought to myself. Bring. It.)

“But I couldn’t have gotten through this weekend without my amazing team. Now I truly understand that you need a strong, supportive team around you to succeed.”

My heart dropped. Damn (I thought), that’s not cliché. That’s a beautiful, universal truth and the very reason I’m standing in this dank conference room on a gorgeous afternoon with the tick-tock of my weekend waning away. A strong and united team is key to your success? How is that cliché?

Let me step back a minute. Just a few months ago, a staff member (who will remain nameless for now), emailed me about a document I had rewritten with a cryptic note that I was “quite the wordsmith.” At first, I thought: Aw, isn’t that sweet? This dear soul has taken the time to compliment my masterful editing and was thoughtful enough to CC my director. Then about 10 seconds later, it hit me. She’s calling me out on being cliché. And she CC’d my boss!

Oh, yes. She did.

I’m a writing veteran of 25 years, so I think I’m all that. The last thing I would ever (willingly) do is allow a tired cliché to slip into my prose. I chalked it up to this person confusing “clichés” with “brilliantly crafted brevity” and let it go (I’m not bitter, not really, whatever). Since then, I’ve become keenly aware (OK, paranoid) about clichés, and it’s become a running joke between me and my director. “Not to be cliché,” I’ll say, “But where do you want to go for lunch?” It gets a chuckle from her every time.

So when this leadership grad prefaced his profound statement by chastising himself for being on the wrong side of English conformism, I murmured to myself, “That wasn’t cliché, dear man, that was precious.”

A trite expression by any other name…

His words got me thinking. What is a cliché, really? Isn’t it merely a phrase so catchy and meaningful that it becomes entirely overused until it loses its original gloss? Like that song you loved the first 237 times you heard it and now can’t stand?

Take, for example:

“The family that plays together, stays together.”

Ew. So cliché, right? Yet it’s a truly touching sentiment. And it rhymes (bonus). If you had this phrase clinging to your fridge on a kitchen magnet, would you sneer at it every time you read it? Would you think “stupid, tired old cliché” or would you think about getting your kids together for a family bike ride or having your folks over for Sunday dinner?

Here’s another one:

“Laughter is the best medicine.”

Hell yeah it is, especially when a coworker calls you out in front of your boss. Hah. Hah.

In the worst of times, the familiarity of a cliched expression can be comforting and the only thing you can say:

“With deepest sympathy.”

In its snooty British way, The Economist may have summed it up best:

“It would be quixotic to try to banish all clichés, and silly: a phrase often becomes a cliché precisely because it does its job rather well–at first. It is then copied so often and so unthinkingly that the reader wearies of it, and groans.”

And props to British Swingmaster’s entry in The Urban Dictionary for this observation:

“Off the record, the term itself has become a cliché, and some find the term infuriating, often because the word is sometimes used to attack a product with little other basis. Some old ideas are overdone because they work … Avoiding all clichés is more or less impossible because some ideas are etched in the human psyche as unavoidable aspects of everyday life.”

The entry goes on to note that because ideas are born from other ideas, few ideas are truly new. It’s how you as the writer invoke the creative process to present a familiar, possibly overdone idea with a new spin.

When creativity calls…

Groans aside, clichés can be the source of creativity. I was poking around Cliche Finder (yes, you read that right) and came across this gem:

“Give peace a chance.”

Lovely sentiment—but so trite, right? Let’s say, though, that you’re writing an article about how to get kids to eat more vegetables, and you’re struggling for a headline. Give it up for: “Give Peas a Chance.” You’re welcome.

Here’s another one:

“Funny as a fart in church.”

Granted, this little nugget is a bit outdated, but if you spent any of your formative years in Catholic school, you know the feeling this expression evokes. It sends you right back to those rock-hard church pews where you stifled many a giggle as a kid. That’s the other beauty of clichés: They’re relatable. If you happen to be writing a story about your parochial education (heaven help you), this expression could provide a humorous transition.

A cliché gone too far…

I’ll admit that some clichés are beyond annoying. Those that serve no purpose other than to make word count should be banned. They waste the precious time of your readers.

  • There are two sides to every story (duh).
  • Full as a tick (if you’ve ever had to remove a tick from a pet or your own body, you will never, ever say that again).
  • Needless to say (then spare us and don’t say it).
  • X is the new Y (when a buzzword gets its own TV show, i.e., “Orange is the New Black,” it’s time for retirement).

All I know for sure is this: Trust your editorial spirit. Think of clichéd expressions as a jumping-off point in the creative process. If you hit the right mark, you’ll strike a familiar chord with your reader and you’ll be BFFs forever. If you strike out, be prepared for an email about what a gifted wordsmith you are. You’ve been warned.