Going beyond the cliché: a guide for writers

Striking the right tone and voice in your writing is one of the hardest things to achieve.

It’s also the most important: if you get it wrong, you will end up sounding like a used-car salesman, a professional advertorial writer and someone without depth, authority or substance. None of those things lead to success. (Unless you’re actually trying to sell use cars or write advertorials. Even then, I’d still advise avoiding the usual techniques.)

Most importantly, it will help you avoid clichés. Clichés and stereotypes will drive your readers away. They won’t trust that you’re genuine and worth listening to.

Here are our three steps to avoiding clichés and finding the perfect tone, angle and content

1. Understand your audience

Firstly, you’ll need to be across who you’re writing for. Be sure you’ve read all you can about the publication you’re writing for, and their audience ( see ‘Your guide to My French Life™ and our community’).

2. Then, find your voice

exclamationmarksMy top tips are to imagine your reader clearly, and write to them as a friend sharing a story or secret – don’t force the tone, or try to sell too hard. Relax into your writing, and when in doubt, write as you would speak!

Don’t go any further without reading this article on Copyblogger, which explores how to write with authenticity and repeats some of my advice above.


1. Answer these questions from writer Jeff Goins. They’ll help you probe and ponder until you have a clear picture of who you are and how you might like to write.

2. Be a copy cat: It’s often hard to find your personal writing style. Finding it takes experimentation, and one of the best ways to do this is by copying the work of authors you admire. Write to Done has some great advice on this in their article ‘Why copying inspires creativity‘.

3. Simply: read and write. The Write Practice has boiled it down to two simple steps – but I’d recommend looking into the ones above before you get here. Of course, it’s true that in the end, the best way to find your voice is to simply read and write.

Once you’ve found something that feels like a comfortable voice, you’ll then need to consider your content.

3. Think about your content

starAre you tackling a topic that could be regarded as a cliché? Will the use of keywords and phrases (for SEO) make it difficult to avoid? The answer is most likely yes, because practically everything can become a cliché. Having this at the forefront of your mind when you write is therefore very important. After all, if we jam-pack our articles with keywords to rank higher, we’ll end up worse off when no one wants to read our content because it’s one dimensional and painfully repetitive.

As I said above, you’ll end up sounding like an advertorial, or a poorly-researched article on a website that deals almost exclusively in clichés. We are neither.

Here are some tips to avoid this:

1. Go back to steps 1 & 2, to understand your audience and find your voice.

2. Re-read the Copyblogger article again, and ensure you’ve thought about each point listed, most importantly:

  • Imagine yourself having a chat with a trusted friend
  • Use the same words you would in everyday life
  • Read what you write out loud.

3. Try to avoid using hyperbole and too many adjectives. For example, nothing is ever “truly unique”. Don’t say something is “stunning” unless it really is. And when you do, ensure that the reader knows that you were struck by this impression – not the glossy brochure you received on the way in.

4. Don’t leave yourself out: try putting yourself into the story. Share your personal impressions and experiences.

I think that Paris-based writer Jacqueline Dubois does a beautiful job of this in her articles on AFPIF events. Though they are a partner, you would not have any idea we were “selling” them, thanks to Jacqueline’s genuine voice, and effective ability to put herself into a story without making it all about her. She tells the story through her eyes.

Read an example here.

5. Consider carefully whether you’re giving too much exposure to one particular business or person. Read the article from the reader’s perspective: would they think I’m raving far too much about this person or place to be genuine?

Then, consider how you would share your impressions of this person or place with a close friend. This will help you to achieve step #3, and avoid hyperbole, and the overuse of adjectives.

If it’s still tricky, perhaps an article on that one business or person isn’t going to work. Try featuring 2-4 other places or people to make a ‘best of’ or ‘top 3-5’ article. For example: The best crêpes in Melbourne or Discover the 6 best macarons in Chicago.

6. Still from the reader’s perspective, ask yourself whether you’ve presented all arguments and points of view.

While objectivity in reporting is an illusive concept, we need to at least try to be balanced. If you’re arguing for a certain point of view, give us enough evidence to support it. Don’t ever say something without backing it up.

For example, we worked carefully with Selina on her story about French people in London to ensure she had all the evidence to back-up her claims. She did the hard yards, and the article is great. It’s convincing, well-argued and easy to read.

7. Lastly, if a cliché is unavoidable, then the best thing to do is acknowledge it.

This will immediately counter any complaint of biased or clichéd writing. Have a laugh about the fact that clichés are so hard to avoid! If you’re willing to laugh at yourself, your readers will feel more comfortable with you – you’re being humble, and admitting you don’t know any better. But, you have taken the time to think about it.

I tried to do this at the start of my article ‘French women don’t have it figured out’.

As I said in the article, this is also what I loved about Garance’s blog post: she was admitting she’s hopeless, thus debunking a cliché about French women (and fashion bloggers) having it all figured out, and always looking amazing. She brings herself to the reader’s level and speaks to them directly. She practices humility, and she gets it, so we trust her!

4. Strive for perfection – find out more.

Here are some more articles and resources you might find useful in your quest to avoid clichés…

cursor1. Read Peter Selgin’s list of 10 ways to avoid clichés in you articles, on Writer’s Digest. While he refers mostly to fiction writing, his points are valid for all types of writing.

“Our own private thoughts, dreams, intuitions and fantasies are inevitably colored by what psychiatrist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious—the vast, reservoir-like body of shared human experiences and of myths, symbols and legends.”

2.  Sal Glynn has written a short and sweet article on how to avoid clichés, with some interesting insights into their origins.

3. If you’d like a definitive guide, refer to this A-Z of clichés to avoid like the plague (mdr).

Do you have any resources or thoughts to share? Let us know in the comments box below, or drop us a line at info@myfrenchlife.org.

About the Contributor

Hannah Duke

“I’m a Melbourne-based journalist, editor, photographer, and blogger dreaming of la vie européenne. I love all things French except for the pigeons: film, food, literature, fashion, and I indulge in this passion as often as possible! Find me on Twitter, or Google+.”

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