Sloppy Thinking Leads to Sloppy Writing

Today is Thursday, so this post is on communication skills.

I take Newsweek.  Every issue has a column called My Turn.  It’s reader generated content.  Anyone can submit an essay on any topic.  I usually read the My Turn essays first.

The August 6, 2007 My Turn essay was written by Gregory Pence and entitled Let’s Think Outside the Box of Bad Clichés; and subtitled “Sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking, which is why I have a ‘bone of contention’ with trite phrases.  I loved the tongue in cheek humor.

Dr. Pence, a Professor of Bioethics – not English – begins by saying, “I strive to teach my students that clear writing fosters clear thinking.  But as I was grading a stack of blue books today, I discovered so many clichés that I couldn’t help writing them down.  Before I knew it, I had spent the afternoon not grading essays but cataloguing the many trite or inaccurate phrases my students rely on to express themselves.”

Here is a partial list of the clichés he found in his students’ essays:

  • It goes without saying
  • It’s not for me to say
  • Who can say?
  • Opening Pandora’s box
  • Sliding down the slippery slope

He points out redundancies like “mass exodus”, correctly saying that an “exodus implies a mass of people”.

Dr. Pence also mentioned phrases in which students contradict students contradict themselves.  He points out that one student said that philosophy “bores me to tears”.  His point – if something brings you to tears, it’s certainly not boring.

Dr. Pence finishes his essay with this very funny paragraph.

  • "Beyond the shadow of a doubt, I’d like to leave no stone unturned in grind such writing to a halt, saving each and every student’s essay in the nick of time.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that, from time immemorial, that has been an errand of mercy and easier said than done."

How’s that for a string of clichés?  I love it.

The common sense point here is simple.  Avoid clichés in your writing.  I agree with Dr. Pence, that clichés are a lazy way to express yourself.  Most clichés are used as prepositional phrases and can be deleted without changing the meaning of a sentence.  Read what you write – look for clichés, redundancies and self contradictory phrases.  Cut them out and if necessary replace them with clear language. 

I disagree with Dr Pence on one point.  He says “sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking”.  I think it’s the other way around.  In my opinion, sloppy thinking leads to sloppy writing.

Regardless, if you want to communicate well in writing you need to be rigorous in your thinking and diligent in your writing and editing.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website to subscribe to my monthly ezine and for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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