These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
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There’s a rhythm that we writers fall into when we’re on a roll—the words just start to flow and we’re thinking even faster than our fingers can type. Unfortunately, that’s the time when we’re most vulnerable to a malady that I’m going to call hyper-cliché-ism: the use of phrases that are so much a part of our common vocabulary that we write them as quick as a wink, but without giving them particular thought.
In fact, the paragraph that you just read has several clichés—not only as quick as a wink, but also on a roll and fall into a rhythm and faster than our fingers can type.
While there are times when using a cliché may be called for, there are many more times when you’ll want to examine your writing and eliminate as many of them as possible. Here are a few reasons for avoiding clichés:
1. You are a better writer than that. Don’t you want all of your words to be your own? In places where you’ve written a well-used phrase, find a unique and fresh way to express that same concept. Instead of writing that a person was as quiet as a mouse, for example, write that she was as quiet as whipped cream. Instead of writing he couldn’t get a word in edgewise, write every word he said was snatched from midair. Be careful, though—when you re-imagine a cliché, make sure that you replace it with something just as compelling (or more) than the original. Don’t change that sure hits the spot to that tastes really good just to avoid a cliché.
2. When you use a cliché, your readers’ eyes may well skip right over them. Those are words that they have read before—but if they skip over the cliché, they may skip several words too far, and may miss something lovely and original that you wrote. You want your readers to be pulled in by every word that you write.
3. Using too many clichés is just lazy writing. George Orwell said, “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” He also warned writers against “letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you — concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
I recommend that you read through your writing at least once specifically for the purpose of finding clichés. If you find a “ready-made phrase"—any phrase that you’ve read several times elsewhere—carefully consider writing it another way. If you’re not sure that you can identify clichés, you might want to take a look at this list or a similar one.
I found an online tool that will analyze your writing for clichés (and many other writing faults). The free version here is rather limited, but it will find clichés for you. You can “go premium” and pay for the full version—it seems reasonable to me, and could provide you with valuable analysis of your writing.
Of course, there are times when you may want to use a cliché. You may have a character whose speech is full of homey expressions as part of her characterization. It may be that there’s no more accurate way to convey a particular concept than with a cliché that your readers will immediately understand. Or using a cliché may be an aspect of your own writer’s voice that you want to keep.
This was a short-ish lesson, so I’ll give you a few more choices than usual for your homework. As usual, you may choose to do one, some, or all of the exercises: no one is grading you. However, I’d love for you to post your answers here—they may benefit others who are following this class, and in every lesson where there’s lively discussion, I find that I learn as much as everyone else.
1. Pick one or more of these clichés and think of a fresh and interesting way to convey the same concept.
take the bull by the horns
my hands are tied
it’s in the cards
elephant in the room
wash your hands of something
all that jazz
Be careful when you’re reworking the clichés that you don’t just simplify them to what they mean. Come up with something new—maybe it will catch on, and someday become a new cliché!
2. Give another reason for avoiding clichés.
3. Give another situation in which it might be appropriate to use clichés.
4. Tell about a time when you’ve used a cliché in your writing, and tell if you think you should have re-written it or left it as it was.
5. Find at least one other cliché in the text of this lesson—I tried very hard to avoid them, but it’s not easy!
A note: for the month of March and perhaps the first two weeks of April, I’ll be working full time at a job that I take on a few times a year (grading standardized tests online). It’s a time-consuming job, but it only lasts a few weeks, and then I’m largely free again. I may not have time to create weekly lessons while I’m doing the scoring job—but I’ll try to do a few, if I can.
In the meanwhile, please continue to send writers here and to the previous lessons; I’ll certainly have time at least to respond to posts and questions.
Next lesson: Writing a good ending
take the bull by the horns ... grab the dragon's nose ring
my hands are tied ... life has me pinned down
it’s in the cards ... destiny won't let go
elephant in the room ... dancing on daisies
wash your hands of something ... I'm letting go of the rope
all that jazz ... all the sprinkles on the cake
Here is my reason for choosing to use a carefully chosen cliche, but RARELY... Sometimes a cliche can say in just a few words what it would take a page to reveal otherwise. "She was a Pollyanna" would instantly give a full description and would even work well if you followed it immediately with an "UN-Pollyanna" trait. She was a Pollyanna around Grandma, but only around Grandma.
Yikes! I was so busy when you posted your lesson that I decided to come back to it later, but I totally forgot. I'm so glad that Jay posted.
This was the hardest homework that you've assigned yet. (For me anyway!) I'm kind of embarrassed to post this, because I think I'm way off on a few of them, but I'm glad you made me really think through what these mean. I think that reworking idioms can add freshness to writing.
take the bull by the horns... look the monster in the eye
my hands are tied... I'm up against a mammoth
it’s in the cards... it's sure as tantrums in a daycare
elephant in the room...refusing to admit that the swinery stinks
wash your hands of something... like a hardened criminal claiming innocence right to death
all that jazz... all that puffed wheat
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile
take the bull by the horns...pull a rabbit by its tail
my hands are tied...my eye is secure
it’s in the cards...fate is undeniable
elephant in the room...there is a mouse in the attic
wash your hands of something...
all that jazz...make the details glitter
I hope these answers are okay and make sense? This lesson really made me think about my writing for the competitions. I seem to be stuck on writing devotions. Several people have told me that devotions do not rank well. On my last entry, I got some red ink about trite expressions, so i do need to work on this. Thank you for this lesson.
Grace is God's invisible hand reaching down and touching the heart of sinful man. It is not restricted to only a select few. It does not hesitate but boldly goes where no man has gone. The grace of God goes the distance to reach those deep hurting and bleeding places. But more than that it takes and heals and delivers and restores. We should all want to get in that special place where God pours out His healing grace.
Oh--this assignment is so much fun! I can only think of a few of the answers right now but I will try to do more later.
1) "Elephant in the room" might be replaced by "hippopotamus in the swimming pool".
4) I used a cliché in "The Courier":
Jan Karski said to President Roosevelt: “Mr. President let us not as you Americans say, ‘beat around the bush’ ".
I think it made sense to use a cliché in this instance. Since English was not Jan's first language "beat around the bush" would have been a novelty to him, rather than a cliché. Also he was allowed only a short time for his meeting and he needed to use an expression that Roosevelt was sure to understand. Jan needed to make clear to the president that he was not going to be distracted from delivering his message.
I'll reply to you all together, because I have the same thing to say to you all--well done! The idea, or course, is just to get you to re-imagine familiar expressions, and to look for them in your own writing. You've all done that, and several of your fresh expressions have great imagery, too.
And Cinnamon Bear, your example of a time when a cliche was appropriate is exactly right. Your character had a few good reasons for using the cliche, and it made sense there.
I have a question. In our previous Challenge quarter each topic was based on an animal idiom. Some of these idioms, including "Elephant in the Room", might be considered clichés. Yet some participants said they had never heard of some of these idioms and took their meanings literally. I am guessing that some of these idioms are known only in some parts of the United States and/or only in some English speaking countries. (Sorry for using "some" six times in the same paragraph.)
So my question is, if an expression is not known to many English speakers can it be considered a cliché?
Well, that's an interesting question. One definition of "cliche" says that it's an expression that is very overused, to the extent that it has almost lost its meaning. So...the fact that someone hasn't heard the expression really doesn't change the fact that it has indeed been overused. That person hasn't been exposed to it--but it's still a cliche.
I was actually quite surprised that quarter, that so many people hadn't been exposed to many of those idioms.
I guess it's a cliche if the READER has encountered it many, many times. I'll have to think on this a bit.
I think some clichés can be quite local. A friend of mine from the southern United States (I'm in Canada) said that something was "such a pill." I had to get her to explain that, and I think it meant that it was "hard to swallow" or difficult to accept.
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile
Absolutely--and those sorts of regionalisms are great for adding local color to a bit of fiction.
I needed this lesson!
My hands are tied -- The glue has got my hands to the wall.
Elephant in the room -- Pink flamingo a midst the sea of seagulls.
I tried doing another...but this is harder than I thought!
PS: I submitted this before reading the other posts.
My writing is a passion, not a hobby!
Good job, Amelia! Keep at it!
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