Great Writers ​Replace ​C​lichés With ​Puns

Here’s an email I just sent to my business-writing students:

​Great writers subtly violate their reader’s expectations in order to surprise, to delight, or to emphasize a point.

For example, instead of relying on a cliché, great writers create a pun. (As wordsmith par excellence William Safire memorably put it, “Avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”)

You may remember the example I used in class: Instead of saying, “Go big, or go home,” try saying something like, “Go big, then go home.”

This is punning 1.0. But if you want to get fancy, here’s how to create a 2.0 pun:

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” It means, If you’re preparing to do battle, then suit up appropriately.

To avoid this cliché, most writers might change “knife” or “gun” to something even more dramatic — say, “pillow” or “grenade.” That’s good, but not great. Great writers would go one step further.

For example, here’s a sentence I just read by Eric Levitz (note: the subject of the sentence, Michael Avenatti, is a pugilist who would explode the Queensbury Rules practiced by today’s congressional Democrats):

“Avenatti is bringing a knife to a policy fight.”

The pun is subtle yet sophisticated. It changes the original in a way you don’t anticipate, but which you appreciate. And that’s the stuff of which great writing is made.

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