What this handout is about
This handout discusses clichés and why you should generally avoid them in order to achieve specificity in both your academic writing and your application essays.
Introduction: What’s so bad about clichés?
Let’s say you are on a study abroad applications review committee. You are responsible for making sure a limited amount of money goes to the most qualified applicants…and you have to read through hundreds of application essays! Here are two personal statements:
I’m a people person, so I am certain to get along well with new people in a strange country. I know how to adapt, because I’m a jack-of-all-trades. I am also prepared to deal with adversity and learn from challenges because I know that every cloud has a silver lining.
I will be able to immerse myself in another country because I have experience as an ESL tutor interacting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Growing up in a military family taught me how to quickly adapt to new people and environments. I won’t let the inevitable challenges of living abroad deter me from my educational goals. As my numerous failed experiments for my chemistry senior project show, challenges are profitable in the long-run. I finally made a contribution to my field after 200 experiments!
Who gets the money? Both applicants made the same basic argument about themselves. But the second did it with more specificity—in other words, by using detailed evidence to reinforce her more general claims about herself. The first applicant relied on clichés—“I’m a people person,” “jack-of-all-trades,” “every cloud as a silver lining”—that anybody could have used. We didn’t learn anything specific about this person. The second applicant gets the money.
This example shows the problem with clichés—they are general statements that do not add any detailed evidence or unique support to a piece of writing, whether that writing is a personal statement or an academic essay.
What is a cliché?
Clichés are expressions that either have a general meaning or have “lost their meaning” over time. These overused phrases do not provide a specific meaning or image. You are probably familiar with many of them, although you might find it difficult to pinpoint their exact definition. Some are idioms, where the figurative meaning of a group of words is different from the literal definition. For example, “The devil is in the details” should hopefully not be taken literally! Other clichés may once have possessed a precise meaning that made them creative metaphors, but they have now lost their edge because that specific definition has been forgotten or dulled through overuse. “Survival of the fittest” once evoked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Because readers have largely lost this unique context, the phrase has also lost the specificity which may have once made it a potent metaphor. Clichés can also obscure fully-developed ideas by serving as placeholders for a more sophisticated discussion. Clichés lack specificity and complexity; therefore, they do not make distinctive or memorable contributions to your writing.
What are some examples of clichés?
We’ve divided some common clichés into categories based on the genre in which you might encounter them. Follow the links at the end of this handout for much more comprehensive lists of clichés.
- In modern society
- Throughout history (Be warned: History TAs hate this one!)
- In this day and age
- In the current climate
- From the dawn of man (Historians are also not fond of this one!)
Application Essays – where talking about yourself can lead to getting mushy and using clichés (check out our handout on application essays to make your personal statements specific and effective):
- Good things come to those who wait
- Every cloud has a silver lining
- Little did I know
- I learned more from them than they did from me
- Every rose has its thorn
- The time of my life
Any type of writing:
- In the nick of time
- Opposites attract
- You win some, you lose some
- Easy come, easy go
Why shouldn’t you use clichés?
Clichés are usually not acceptable in academic writing, although some may be effective in daily conversation and less formal writing. Evaluate the context of your writing and be aware that you’re making a choice when you use them.
- Clichés make you seem boring. By using a cliché, you’re telling your reader that you lack originality, making them want to yawn and stop reading your paper.
- Clichés make your writing and argument interchangeable with anybody else’s. Make sure that your argument and writing are specific to you and your writing task.
- Clichés are vague. It is best to use the most precise wording in order to present evidence and support your arguments as clearly as possible. Specific details and explanations make better evidence than generalizations and trite phrases.
- Clichés make you seem lazy. They are a hedge when you don’t want to do creative work.
- Clichés make you lose credibility. Your reader will not trust you as an authoritative source if you can’t come up with a better description than a cliché.
- Clichés are poor substitutes for actual evidence. Because clichés are not specific, they do not offer strong enough commentary to prove your point. Make sure that every sentence of your paper is working toward a goal by eliminating meaningless phrases.
How to tell when you’re using a cliché
- If instructors provide feedback such as “too general,” “vague,” or “be more specific,” what they might really mean is that your writing relies on clichés.
- Ask a friend to listen as you read your writing out loud. If he or she can finish any sentence before you read the whole thing, you have probably employed a cliché.
- Read through your writing alone. Read it slowly and out loud, stopping often to develop mental pictures that reflect what you have written. If you’re writing a paper that needs to be descriptive, do all of your sentences evoke strong images? If you’re writing about something theoretical or persuasive, are all of your points specific and clear? If something is easy to skip over or you can’t assign a direct meaning to it, go back! You may have a cliché.
- Ask yourself if what you’ve written is a product of your research, an original argument, or a portrayal of your personal experiences. Could what you wrote appear in anyone else’s essay? If so, you may be relying on clichés. No other writer has had exactly the same personal experiences as you, conducted the same research, or formulated the same arguments.
- Look through your introduction and your conclusion. Often writers rely on clichés to power through what many consider to be the most difficult sections of a paper. If you’re using phrases that sound like they could belong in any generic paper, chances are they’re not serving you well. Of course, you may reuse certain transition words or forms of argument in multiple papers, but try to avoid hackneyed phrases like “Throughout history…” or “In conclusion…”
How to get rid of clichés
- Research or brainstorm some more. If you are relying on clichés, you might not have prepared enough for your writing assignment. Check out our brainstorming handout. If you think you may be relying on clichés instead of actual evidence, consult our handout on evidence for clarification.
- Stop and think about what you’re trying to say. What do you really mean? Say your answer out loud and then write it down. List the main ideas that you want to convey in each sentence, and then list synonyms of each idea underneath. Pull out a thesaurus if necessary. This method leaves you with a list of many words, and you can pick the most fitting combination.
- Try to pinpoint exactly what you want to say, and write it! Often, keeping it simple is a good idea.
- Ask yourself questions as you write. Use “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how” questions to spur your thinking. Rather than writing “throughout history” as your introductory line, stop and ask yourself, “When? In what era? Where? Who was in power during the specific historical context I am addressing?” The answers to these questions will give you a more focused opening line. For example, imagine you’re writing a paper about papal history. Rather than saying something generic such as, “Throughout history, only two popes have resigned,” you can write something better with the help of a little research. You could end up with the more precise: “In what represented a nearly unprecedented departure from papal tradition, Pope Benedict XVI became the second pope to resign in 2013.”
Consult these resources for lists of clichés:
Cliché List: Definition, Meaning & Examples. http://www.clichelist.net/
Examples of Clichés. http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-cliches.html
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill