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Avoiding higher-order cliches

“[W]e’ll need you to steer clear of mentioning any drug-related violence/kidnapping/etc.” 

Those were the only directives about the Mexico City feature that were sent to me by the editor.

You can read that, as I did initially, as a form of editorial whitewashing, or what Catholics refer to as a “sin of omission.” I’m not sure you’d be far off base.

But you can also read it, as a contact of mine in Mexico City did, as an opportunity to tell a narrative that stands as a radical departure from the dominant narrative. “I love your editor,” Ramon^ told me before he went on to recount a recent exchange he had with an editor at a major US-based newspaper. The editor contacted him to fact-check a story involving one of his properties. “I told him that the only problem I had was with the mention of drugs and violence,” Ramon told me. “It had nothing to do with the story. Can you believe the editor told me that mentioning these two things is the paper’s standard procedure for Mexico City and Mexico, as if they must precede any article with a disclaimer?”

Unfortunately, I could believe it.


Truth be told, I probably would have opened my own article with a similar disclaimer, something along the lines of “Despite daily news of narcoviolence in Mexico, the country’s capital is safe….” Initially, I felt compelled to correct a common misperception by acknowledging drug and violence issues and then promptly moving on, letting the body of the article stand as a defense, enumerating all the reasons why Mexico City is “worth” visiting.

The deeper Ramon and I got into our conversation, the more I was convinced that regardless of the editor’s intentions when he demarcated the “no-write” zone, the more freedom I had to write a feature that was free of what I was beginning to define as “higher-order cliches.”

As an editor and travel writing instructor, I’ve become finely attuned and intellectually allergic to descriptive cliches (for the cliches that make me break out into hives, check this article and this one), adjectives, usually, that have lost all of their descriptive power.

But I’m also susceptible to more subtle cliches, the ones that establish and confine the boundaries of our narratives, the ones that almost unconsciously guide the reader to approach an article with a particular opinion or mindset. I’d long felt frustrated by these types of constraints, but I was only just beginning to develop a name for them–higher-order cliches–and a theory about them.


I filed the story with the editor last night. As I re-read the article one last time before submitting it, I was pleased with the direction the piece had taken. Free of the meta-cliche of drugs and violence, I was able to describe Mexico City as I experience it– and as I hope readers can experience it, too.

What higher-order cliches have you found in your reading? And what meta-cliches have you fallen into in your writing? Share your experiences in the comments.


^Name changed.


4 responses »

  1. Great post. I often struggle with this since the places I’ve lived and traveled are often considered ‘dangerous.’ I usually try to avoid mentioning the terrorist attacks/safety issues unless it’s relevant to the article (i.e. the article is about safety, or the particular area is more volatile and readers really should understand the risk they take by visiting there – like driving through Balochistan to the Iran border or through the Tribal Areas in Pakistan), but I’ve had some editors specifically ask me to add such disclaimers, sometimes even for destinations (like Dubai!) where I found them not only unnecessary, but as distracting from the article.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m sharing ‘too positive’ a picture of Pakistan (I think of my interview on Big Blend about my Cooking in Lahore post), but then I remember that one of my goals is to offer counter-narrative about Pakistan and that the U.S. media is already oversaturated with extremely negative press. People don’t necessarily need to be reminded of the negative things – they see enough of them in the news!

    • Heather-

      I think the geographical region you mention–and which you know best and are thus most likely to write about–presents particularly interesting challenges. Is *not* writing about conflict and violence irresponsible? I think it depends on many factors. In your “Cooking in Lahore” essay, I just don’t think it’s relevant at all to the narrative (relevant to people’s lives? Yes. To the narrative? No.). Another factor is the end reader. Is the audience people who are already likely to be aware of the sociopolitical issues there? What’s the context? I don’t want to downplay the very real life and death struggles people face, but I think it’s also important to acknowledge that life goes on (and for some people, quite well) amidst violence and other conditions that have come to characterize a place.

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking. Thanks!


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