There’s a cold-sweat feeling I sometimes get when I open a new doc in Word. A shadowy fear passes over the blinking cursor, reminding me that there’s nothing new to say that hasn’t been said before.
The Old Testament called it back in the 3rd century BC: there is nothing new under the sun. (Of course, the observation was old news even then.)
Although the anxiety over originality is partly existential, it’s partly practical. It’s trite and superficial to say the same thing in the same way again and again. It’s dull and annoying to read it.
In fact, there’s a word for an expression that’s so repetitive that it’s (mostly) meaningless: it’s called cliché.
In writing as in life, repetition does not always aid expression. But avoiding clichés can be hard. They may bore readers to tears, but they’re as old as time for a reason. They can point to a universal—and thus immediately recognizable—feeling. They can offer a shortcut to meaning, an easy-as-pie solution for time-crunched writers.
To avoid the cliché crutch, writers often turn to online tools like the Cliché Finder. But should they? At Cliché Finder, writers type or paste their content into a blank box, click the "find clichés" button, and are directed to a page that highlights the text’s clichés.
After reading about the tool in last month’s CCO, the magazine for chief content officers, I gave it a try. If it couldn’t help stem the tide of my existential anxiety, I figured it could at least point me in the right direction of originality.
How helpful was it? Well, not very. I pasted in my content and clicked the button, but the tool didn’t recognize “bored to tears,” “old as time” “easy as pie,” “stem the tide,” or “point in the right direction.”
To be fair, I haven’t used the most common cliché iterations. And, of course, there’s much discussion about the subtleties between clichés and idioms and the fact that sometimes a cliché is exactly what a writer needs to bring a point home.
Despite (or indeed because of) that, the Cliché Finder isn’t a particularly useful tool for assuaging existential anxiety or for expressing the same old same old in an original way. But, I guess that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.