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Avoiding Cliché in Academic Writing

We are often warned to avoid cliché in our writing, but what does this really mean? A cliché is a phrase that has been used so often that its meaning has become unimportant. A cliché says nothing new or original and is a waste of valuable words, especially when you are working within a word limit. Because clichés are established phrases that have been used to death, they no longer add meaning to your sentences. Even worse, readers tend to switch off when they read them. It’s much better to take the time to think about what you want to say and then try to formulate it clearly and originally than to borrow a cliché that signals lazy writing and lack of thought.

In an academic article or essay, it is always best to be specific and to avoid generalisation. This is the main problem with clichés: by their very nature, they generalise. When tempted to use a cliché, always ask yourself how you can explain the idea in relation to your work.

Clichés are sometimes used by non-native English speakers because they provide ready-made phrases in English or because they appear to give correct expression to complex concepts that would be difficult for a writer with limited language skills to express. However, these platitudes usually sit awkwardly within the writer’s own phrasing and, rather than having the desired effect of proving them proficient in English, reveal an inability to express complex thought fluently.

Don’t let yourself be tempted by hackneyed phrases. It is a much better idea to try to say things as best you can in your own words and then have a good editor check your work to be sure you have expressed it clearly.

So, what are some of the most common clichés found in academic writing and how can they be avoided?

  • ‘A stumbling block’. As a general rule, it is best to avoid overly metaphoric language in academic writing: research projects don’t walk, and they certainly don’t stumble over blocks. If your work encounters a challenge or a point of contention, then just say so directly.
  • ‘At the end of the day’. Just delete this one: it’s useless. Simply state outright the sentence that was going to follow it. The same goes for phrases like ‘All in all’, ‘In a nutshell’ and ‘When all is said and done’.
  • ‘Easier said than done’. It is much simpler and more precise to write that something is more difficult in practice, especially when you are referring to a particular theory.
  • ‘Every coin has two sides’. This one is notorious among ESL students and will immediately designate you as a non-native speaker. Avoid it by stating clearly how the issue you are addressing is complex, how, although elements of it may appear to be beneficial, it has clear risks, or failings. Be as specific as possible about what these risks or failings might be.
  • ‘Everyday life’. Whose everyday lives are you discussing here? The structures of human lives vary greatly. It would be clearer to say ‘the daily routines of most participants’ or, in some cases, to leave the phrase out altogether.
  • ‘Few and far between’. Just write ‘rare’.
  •  ‘In modern society’ or ‘nowadays’ or ‘in this day and age’. When distinguishing between periods of time, it is always best to be specific, for example, ‘since 1990’ or ‘in the past two decades’.
  • ‘In recent times/years’. Why not just say ‘recently’?
  • ‘In society’. This is far too general. To which society are you referring? British? Twenty-first century Australian? Early Saxon? Thinking about what you want to impart here will give your writing precision.
  • ‘Pros and cons’. Be more specific and formal and say ‘advantages and disadvantages’ or ‘benefits and potential complications’.
  • ‘Think outside of the box’. If, in the service of your research project, it is necessary for you to apply original thinking then don’t rely on a tired old phrase like ‘think outside of the box’ to show it. Instead, explain the standard approach to your problem and then detail what makes your approach new, innovative, unconventional, novel or exciting.
  •  ‘Throughout history’ or ‘From time immemorial’. These are so general that they are laughable. History is varied and amorphous and it is impossible to trace an approach or thought throughout its entirety. Once again, take care to exercise precision when writing of historical periods. Ask yourself what you are really trying to say with this phrase. Are you merely trying to point out that a new approach has recently been taken that is innovative, or that is unlike more established methods?
  • ‘Tried and true’. There is a word for this: verified/verifiable.

This list is by no means exhaustive and the first step in avoiding cliché is to identify it. Academic writing is about precision. Whatever you are writing, ask yourself whether your chosen words express your meaning in the most specific way possible. Remember, a good editor can always help you to spot and remove clichés and to express your meaning clearly and precisely.

Emily Finlay, PhD, AE (IPeD)