In the movie “Bull Durham,” the big lug of a rookie baseball player, Ebby Calvin Laloosh, is counseled by veteran minor-league catcher Crash.
Crash: It’s time to work on your interviews.
LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?
Crash: You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: “We gotta play it one day at a time.”
Ebby: (writing) “Got to play…” (looks up) That’s pretty boring.
Crash: ‘Course it’s boring; that’s the point! Write it down!
Clichés. They are defined as phrases so commonly and overly used as to have lost their originality and impact. I look for them upfront when editing a piece — because I’m siding with Ebby and Crash: clichés create lackluster writing.
My editing checklist isn’t anything I have written down per se. But in my 20 plus years as an editor, I’ve made mental notes on the weak habits of writing that are commonplace to first drafts. Like clichés, many of them derive from the way we talk, but when committed to a written context become hindrances to energetic, original writing and, in most cases, clear communication.
In this posting, we’ll cover my four of the top eight on my first-draft checklist:
Clichés. What are some examples?
- He was driving at a breakneck speed.
- She added insult to injury.
- That was a no-brainer.
- (And one of the newest and most pervasive): That was an awesome book.
Sure, these phrases are understood by readers, but they don’t do the work. “Awesome,” for instance, is one of those words that is overly used and has lost its ability to capture reader attention. Instead, readers are more likely to hear in their heads one of the teenagers in their lives, rather than the writer’s authentic voice. As my nine-year-old daughter explains, “’Awesome’ is kind of like a video-game word.”
The next three checklist items all come under the same category: Word choices that prevent specific, precise meaning.
Things, somethings. The use of “things” pervades conversational English, but in written pieces is a poor substitute for active nouns. For example:
Cream puffs are things you should avoid eating after 8 p.m.
The sentence is more vibrant and meaningful if the writer struggles with the exact noun to best describe the category of “things.” The context of the piece may help define “things,” but why leave it up to the reader to discern? Find the noun: dairy products? high-calorie foods? What do you want to say specifically?
What. Here again, a word that is ubiquitous to modern communication but will hide active sentences and nouns. For example:
Being mindful of what goes into your body will help you avoid the Freshman 15.
My question becomes, “What ‘what’”? The simple edit finds a noun that replaces “what”:
Being mindful of the food you eat will help you avoid the Freshman 15.
In this example, “what” obscures a simple, direct statement:
I know donated items are what the organization relies on.
Rewritten, it reads surer, stronger:
I know the organization relies on donated items.
There are/is; It is. Technically called expletives, phrases that use “there” or “it” and a form of “to be” can hide active voice that zings the meaning with its subject-verb construction. For example:
There are many community events that sororities and fraternities take part in during the school year.
Rewritten, it becomes:
Sororities and fraternities participate in many community events during the school year.
So, looking at this sentence, how would you edit it to lose the expletive and make it more direct?
It was after the tenth try that he discovered a use for cesium in atomic clocks.
Check back in two weeks, for my next posting with four other items that top my editing checklist!