A visit with your writing coach: Avoiding fad, cliche and jargon

Another tip to good writing is to avoid fad, cliché, and jargon. Fad is trendy, of-the-moment expression often generated by popular entertainment and entertainers. Clichés are once catchy but now tired expression. And jargon can be useful or bewildering, depending upon your audience.

Most professions generate their own jargon or terminology—there’s academese, legalese, bureaucratese, and others. The jargon in those specialties is usually OK if the writers are addressing readers who share not only their profession but also its vocabulary.

Media jargon, however, doesn’t communicate well. Journalese is hackneyed media expression that depends upon journalistic clichés so overused that they amuse more than they communicate. It’s journalese that gives us high-speed chases and bullet-riddled bodies. It gives us surprise moves and bizarre twists. It gives us drug lords and lone gunmen and grieving widows and bearded dictators and fugitive financiers.

Journalese also gives us an overworked vocabulary—verbs and nouns such as fueling or spurring or sparking or targeting or skyrocketing or spiraling or escalating . . . A storm dumps more than five inches of rain and spawns hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail.

In journalese, police find a dead body—as opposed to a live body—in a densely wooded area.

Or a highly placed official is under fire for allegations of wrongdoing.

What’s telling about journalese is that while media folks might write it, they seldom speak it. And if they did— well, imagine! Here, Russell Scott will help me show you how it could sound when two media types meet on the street.

Paula: Hello, Russell.

Russell: Hello, Paula. What’s going on at your journalistic facility?

Paula: Amid a burgeoning crisis spawned by my boss, he hurled a litany, even a laundry list, of verbal insults at me and launched an unprovoked attack on my immediate supervisor, 45. His behavior triggered a firestorm of criticism from staff members, who weighed in on the issue and unleashed a new round of difficulty.

Russell: Such a heated exchange can quickly escalate into a defining moment, or even a critical mass.

Paula: You betcha. In the wake of the controversy, the boss suggested I could level the playing field by an immediate withdrawal—by resigning!

Russell: Whoa, the R-word! Worst-case scenario!

Paula: I don’t know who the architect of that plan was, but I hotly contested it and mounted a staunch defense. But! Then the idea was hailed by high-ranking officials who said it might send a very clear signal to the staff, going forward.

Russell: More like a chilling effect, I’d guess. But at the end of the day, these unprecedented developments must seem a daunting challenge.

Paula: We’re in the midst of negotiations and hope to hammer out an agreement on a key provision. Looks like there might be some wiggle room. But the bottom line may be that there’s a thin line between a soft and a hard line.

Russell: So there could be a sea change, maybe even a ground swell. Instead of a staggering defeat, you could see a stunning victory!

Paula: Better than getting shipped off to delegate-rich New York to be a source on the ground.

Russell: Or to the oil-rich Middle East. So does this storm of controversy decimate your hopes for a promotion?

Paula: Those hopes are in a sudden downturn. Or a steep decline. Or a sharp decrease. Maybe even a free fall. But let’s just say I’m cautiously optimistic.

Russell: So you’re saying the outcome is unclear? Or maybe that it remains to be seen?

Paula: At the end of the day, that’s probably arguably true.


OK! So that’s how it might sound if journalists spoke as they wrote. Makes you wonder, though, if it wouldn’t be better if they instead wrote as they spoke?

I’m Paula LaRocque.

By Paula LaRocque

Paula LaRocque, one of America's foremost writing coaches, is an author, editor, and communications consultant. She has conducted writing workshops for hundreds of media, government, academic, and business groups across the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has also been a writing consultant for the Associated Press, the Drehscheibe Institute in Bonn, and the European Stars & Stripes in Germany.

She has been a columnist for the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill magazine for more than 20 years. Her commentaries air regularly on National Public Radio in Dallas. She is also the author of three books on writing.

Since leaving The Dallas Morning News in 2001, Paula has been writing fiction and has completed the first two of a mystery novel series. Currently, she's a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Inc., and the Dallas-Fort Worth Writers Workshop.