Beware of the Cliché Drawer

File drawers

Have you ever noticed how many TV news stories open with “It’s a (fill in the blank)’s worst nightmare”? A parent’s worst nightmare. A locksmith’s worst nightmare. A mime’s worst nightmare.

I certainly don’t want to trivialize a parent’s heartache, but one would think the inherent drama of the dire situation needs no lead-in, especially a lead-in that has become a cliché. I see three writing lessons in this:

  1. Often, when we are imparting compelling information, a generalization to get us to that information is superfluous. Why not just get to the facts?
  2. Being on the lookout for overworked words and phrases enhances our communications effectiveness.
  3. Some “file drawers” in our head can be quite handy when we’re speaking, but they can undermine our impact when we’re writing. Let’s explore this final point.

Our writing “file drawers”

Even if you don’t like to write or don’t consider yourself especially adept at writing, you’d have to agree that you have plenty of file drawers in your brain dedicated to writing: grammar rules, correct spelling of challenging words and names, nifty expressions, etc. This collection seems like a real asset, doesn’t it? But hold on. Some of the well-worn drawers should mainly be kept shut.

The cliché drawer

Clichés certainly help us when we’re talking and writing informally, but they can get in the way when we should be aiming higher. Phrases like “level the playing field,” “think outside the box,” “work smarter not harder,” “at the end of the day,” “it is what it is,” and “step up to the plate”––plus oldies-but-goodies like “passed with flying colors” or “my worst nightmare”––all communicate, but we need to be wary of pulling them out of the cliché drawer too often. Some situations call for writing with more originality or precision, and some readers find the overuse of clichés off-putting.

The bizspeak drawer 

Yes, bizspeak can enhance our credibility in situations where it’s advantageous to show that we know and understand the lingo (“strategic,” “monetize,” “platform,” “model”), but we need to be wary here too. The reasons are similar to the reasons for applying restraint to clichés, but bizspeak carries an added caution. We don’t want to come across as relying on bizspeak to conceal lack of depth.

(I admit to ambivalence about “brand.” It gets an awful lot of play, but it can convey a great deal in just one syllable.)

The expected language drawer 

Is it just my perspective, or are the three most common adjectives today “amazing,” “awesome,” and “tremendous”? To repeat, writing gives us the opportunity to transcend the more commonplace language we use in speaking, such as “incredible,” “high-quality,” “special,” and “iconic” and, instead, look for alternatives in the next drawer.

The fresh and compelling language drawer 

The more we cram into this drawer and the more often we reach inside to pull out little gems, the more our writing will rise above the mundane, giving even routine emails a bit of vitality.

For example, one folder among many could be devoted to alternatives to “very good”––words like “exceptional,” “extraordinary,” “remarkable,” or, when the situation fits, “stunning,” “uncommon,” and “impeccable”––so we’re not calling everything “tremendous.”

Other folders can contain words that are not highbrow, but merely underused in workplace writing: “eclipse” instead of “exceed,” “refine” or “distill” instead of “improve,” “slated” instead of “scheduled,” “exacting” instead of “careful.”

When we stay away from the stale drawers in our brain and take advantage of the fresh ones, writing is a lot more enjoyable for us and our readers. And we know that boring our readers is a writer’s worst nightmare. 

In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at

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