Editor’s Note: For those of you who do not already know Michael Kaye, you’re invited to learn more about him by visiting his bio from the ATTA’s 2005 Adventure Travel World Summit Web site (http://www.adventuretravelworldsummit.com/atws-program-speaker-bios.html#Michael Kaye) or by visiting the company he founded (http://www.costaricaexpeditions.com/aboutcre/pressroom/mikebiog/). Michael brings to the adventure travel community colorful insights, responsible growth strategies, and a sometimes controversial tongue. This piece he shared with me, originally simply sent to provoke thought, reminded me about the importance of words… and it made me laugh. Sometimes we all need the latter a bit more. He’s given ATN permission to publish this more broadly. I suggest reading these notes he wrote to himself a while back, and taking them seriously. If you’re offended by how it’s approached, well, consider re-reading it, letting down the hair, and enjoying the piece for what it is..
(Written for internal use to save time and keep my pulse rate down when editing copy.MK)
Rule #1: Avoid clichés like the plague
Cliché: An expression or idea that has become weak, tiresome, stale, trite and hackneyed, through much repetition.
What makes the use of clichés so irresistible is that everybody uses them. Most of us have a natural desire to fit in, so we cannot resist using them as well. One reason why clichés are as common as dirt is that even though we know we should not use them, we often do not recognize them.
One way to recognize a cliché is that if you find you can’t resist writing it, it is probably a cliché.
The reason you have to resist no matter how hard it is, is that clichés are, “weak, tiresome, stale,” etc. Weak, tiresome, stale writing loses readers—and sales.
Here are two examples of clichés and how to avoid them:
Rather than “ as common as dirt,” in the paragraph above just write “very common.”
Or better yet, if you can really come up with a concept that is fresh and fits, consider going with it. How about, “Common as hype in travel brochures.”
Very important, it has to fit. “Avoid clichés like… what?” Think of something that is weak, tiresome and stale.
How about, “Avoid clichés like erectile dysfunction?” See how that got your attention?
Ok, it also has to be appropriate. So if ED is not acceptable and you cannot come up with anything else, just remember that, “Avoid clichés,” is always more powerful than, “Avoid clichés like the plague.”
If you absolutely cannot resist writing, “lush,” before, “forest,” “hearty,” before, “breakfast,” or “cascading,” before waterfall, keep practicing until you can resist. If the forest is particularly “lush” or the breakfast particularly “hearty” and you are sure that is important for the reader to know that, take the time and the trouble to write lively fresh descriptions.
Rule # 2: Don’t tell people what they should think or how they should (or will) feel.
They won’t obey you and you stifle their imagination.
Writing, “amazing,” is telling the readers they will be amazed. Writing, “incredible,” is telling them that whatever you are plugging is so good that they will not believe it. DO NOT USE THESE OR SIMILAR WORDS.
Write copy that is so good that the reader will spontaneously think, “Amazing! Incredible!” If you cannot do that (and it is not easy) writing amazing or incredible before whatever experience you are trying to sell will not help you.
“You will enjoy a hearty breakfast,” breaks too many of my rules and will result in death by ridicule.
Rule # 3: Death to superfluous adjectives
This rule is very similar to Rule # 2. I once actually read in an ad for Italy, “…the beautiful ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.” Did the writer actually think that she was going to convince doubters that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is beautiful?
Consider the sentence below that Mark Twain wrote on New Year’s Day, 1867, after seeing Ometepe Island from a boat on Lake Nicaragua:
“Out of the midst of the beautiful Lake Nicaragua spring two
magnificent pyramids, clad in the softest and richest green, all
flecked with shadow and sunshine, whose summits
pierce the billowy clouds.”
How come Mark Twain can get away with, “beautiful,” and “magnificent,” when my writers cannot? It turns out there are at least 5 reasons:
- He is Mark Twain.
- He is writing a travel memoir; he is not hawking a vacation.
- He is writing in 1867. Readers were less jaded. (And deleting words already written was harder.)
- Given the quality of writing of the rest of the sentence, it’s hard to begrudge him a couple of superfluous adjectives.
- Mark Twain is dead. There is no way I can talk him into deleting “beautiful,” and “magnificent.”
All this said, if he were alive today, and I pointed out how effectively, “softest and richest,” enhance, “green,” and how, “beautiful,” and “magnificent,” add nothing to, “Lake Nicaragua,” and, “Pyramids,” and weaken the rest of the sentence, I’m pretty sure he would have agreed to delete, “beautiful,” and “magnificent.” What I wonder about is what he would have said about the borderline case of, “billowy,” before, “clouds.”