At about that time, Jack was learning that a stitch in time, saves nine.
Although it’s an extreme example, the above sentence will no doubt leave readers scratching their heads in confusion: At about what time? And, what was he learning (poor Jack)?
When decoding a sentence becomes labour-intensive, the ghost of fresh-brewed goodness rises from the subconscious (where are those car keys!).
That first sentence is vain jangling, which means ineffectual or discordant speech that makes little sense and to which the lyric “You say it best, when you say nothing at all” is an ointment that may be fittingly applied.
Vain jangling incorporates three elements that writers succumb to, from time to time — jargon (at about that time), clichés (back at the ranch) and platitudes (a stitch in time, saves nine) — which, when combined, compose a lullaby for readers … zz zzz zzzz (uh, oh sorry … where were we?).
At about that time tells us virtually nothing and evokes almost instantaneous frustration.
Jargon consists of non-specific words (mumbo-jumbo) in a phrase that can be said effectively in fewer words or even deleted altogether (unless part of a direct quote).
In a manner of speaking (delete).
What I want to tell you is (delete).
What I was thinking was that … (Oh, please get to the point).
Back at the ranch, is one of those clichés that drags itself in after having been around the block a-few-too-many times. And, it’s confusing. Was there really a ranch?
It takes contemplation to relate ordinary things in fresh ways. Here are some weary clichés you’ve probably heard before.
Our laundry is fresh as a daisy.
The sheets were as white as snow.
He was flying faster than the speed of light (Rocket Man?).
Try replacing tired phrases.
Our laundry is fresh as _____.
The sheets were as white as _____.
He was flying faster than _____.
A stitch in time, saves nine teaches, but platitudes may preach, as well, telling readers what to do or think, what to say or feel or act.
They usually identify some foolish action and its subsequent consequences. They are potentially demeaning, patronizing or hurtful.
What about age-old wisdom? While it is true that platitudes contain wisdom, it is also true that the wise will employ them judiciously, anchoring their hands in their pockets so as to resist the temptation to wag a condemning finger at an unsuspecting reader.
Play with matches and you’ll get burned is one platitude you don’t want to hear after the mishap. It has an I-told-you-so ring to it.
Don’t cry over spilled milk (OK … but who cries over spilled milk?).
Finally, let those who are innocent (of conscripting jargon, clichés and platitudes) cast the first stone.
Is there none among you?
Well then, here’s a benediction from a former cliché queen: May your writing always be as fresh as sheets on laundry day … and cliché-free.