Instead of eliminating cliches, tweak them!

Word count: 269 words

Reading time: About 1 minute

I read widely, watch movies and listen to the radio. In today’s post you’ll see an interesting use of figurative language by Ken Auletta I encountered recently.

What could be more noble than the task of eliminating cliches? While I’m not afraid to wield my red pen — on my own work, and, to be honest, that of others! — I’ve noted that the truly fearless writer will sometimes maintain a cliche, but tweak it slightly to make it more interesting.

New Yorker writer Ken Auletta did exactly that in his Dec. 10/12 profile of Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of the publishing mogul (and alleged phone hacker) Rupert Murdoch. Here is a small piece of his text:

Murdoch [senior], who is eighty-one, abhors gossip about his successor. Like Charles de Gaulle, he cannot imagine death knocking on his door. 

The personification of death is an old trope — and not one I’d encourage most writers to use. What saves it here is the splendid comparison to Charles de Gaulle. It caught me short — took me by surprise. I wasn’t aware that de Gaulle had been afraid of death. In fact, I hadn’t even known how long he’d lived (almost 80 years, it turns out.)

But I’ve always seen him as an immensely pompous and self-involved man. Perhaps that was the real objective of Auletta’s simile? In any case, I found the sentence clever enough to reinvigorate what I could only call an otherwise dusty cliche. I also enjoyed his use of the word “abhors” in the previous sentence. Such a strong, interesting word!