Writing Tips

Dull Words and Phrases

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Barking up the Wrong Tree

Why and How to Avoid Clichés

In casual conversations, we sometimes speak in clichés because we can connect quickly, but even in conversation, if we hear clichés too often, we think, “This guy’s an idiot.”


On paper, that impression comes quicker and more often. To wit: “Jorge is barking up the wrong tree.” I don’t know if that expression comes from a guy who herded a posse of hounds after a fox in the hunt country or a pack of coondogs after a possum in the Ozarks, but the first person to use it as a metaphor to describe energy headed in the wrong direction must have been a clever sort.


At its origin, a cliché is clever (that is why everybody started repeating it, and that is how it became a cliché). But we didn’t think of it, and others have uttered it billions of times between then and now, so coming from us it sounds tired, trite, hackneyed, and like we cannot express ourselves without borrowing from someone else. If we are teenagers still trying things on, that is okay, but it doesn’t sound right coming from an intelligent adult, especially at our level, especially in writing.

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In the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, really smart people argue over insane amounts of money. The atmosphere is tense, the stakes high. Yet the gravity of the situation seems not to deter some lawyers from blurting onto paper clichés like the following (and many more), which a Ninth Circuit judge plucked from their briefs:


tip of the iceberg the forest for the trees
Pandora’s box the whole ball of wax
back to the drawing board
the best of all worlds
avoid like the plague
state of the art hit the nail on the head


When we put these in our writing, we are not connecting with our reader; we are making our reader groan.


Caveat: If we must use clichés, we should at least get them right, and try not to mix them. A defendant’s lawyer once complained to a judge that the plaintiff was demanding “the whole nine balls of wax.” Another lawyer told the judge he felt like he was “beating his head against a dead horse.”


I’m not making these up. I wish I were that clever. My former favorite came from a judge. After discussing a complicated matter with both counsel, he announced they would, “take the bull by the horns, and let the chips fall where they may.” Holy cow.


But my new favorite comes from an associate who was running to court alongside a late and ill-prepared partner. A block from the courthouse, the associate turned to the partner and asked, “How are you going to get out of this one?" Without breaking stride, the partner said, “I’m going to shoot from the seat of my pants!”


I leave you with that scene, inside a quiet courtroom, paneled in walnut.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

WordRake takes you beyond the merely grammatical to the truly great—the quality editor you’ve always wanted. See for yourself.

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How Does it Work?

WordRake is editing software designed by writing expert and New York Times bestselling author Gary Kinder. Like an editor or helpful colleague, WordRake ripples through your document checking for needless words and cumbersome phrases. Its complex algorithms find and improve weak lead-ins, confusing language, and high-level grammar and usage slips.

WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. If you’ve used track changes, you already know how to use WordRake. There’s nothing to learn and nothing to interpret. Editing for clarity and brevity has never been easier.