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.HOMEWORK:
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