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Be a Better Writer--Cliches

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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glorybee
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Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby glorybee » Sat Dec 12, 2015 9:40 am

There’s a rhythm 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 you just read has several clichés—not only as quick as a wink, but also on a roll 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 them. 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, 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 you replace it with something just as compelling as 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 they have read before—but if they skip over the cliché, they may skip several words too far, and miss something lovely and original that you wrote.

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 (it found 14 of them in this lesson). 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.

***
Another type of cliché that’s particularly easy to fall into, especially if you’re a writer of devotionals, inspirational pieces, or any other kind of Christian nonfiction, is that of using too much ‘Christian-ese.’ This is a particular kind of cliché found in this type of writing, and it’s got two dangers:

• People who have been Christians for many years and have read a lot of devotionals and Bible studies often reach a point when it seems there is nothing new under the sun. They’ve read it all before—so there’s no real compelling reason to read it again. (By the way, did you catch the bit of Christian-ese I slipped into that sentence?)

• People who are new to faith haven’t yet had time to pick up the lingo, so they may feel as if they’re reading in a foreign language. If they encounter too many instances of “washed in the blood” (which can be startling to a brand new Christian) or “traveling mercies” or “approach the mercy seat” or “personal Lord and Savior”—and there are hundreds more like those—they may simply quit reading in frustration.

So if you write Christian nonfiction of any type, examine it carefully for Christian clichés. For each one you find, see if you can think of a fresh way to express that same spiritual concept, with your particular audience in mind. Besides—as I said in the first few paragraphs here—you don’t want your writing to slip into automatic, and as an added benefit, while you’re examining your writing for Christian-ese, you may come into some fresh revelation that’s good for your own spirit.

***
Another type of cliché is a situational cliché. This is exactly what it sounds like: a situation in your writing that’s been done so often that it’s become stereotyped. The mistaken identity…the suspected affair…the ‘meet cute’…the prodigal child…the deathbed confession. There are dozens of these, too, and if you use one, you run the risk of being utterly predictable. Your reader may read half-heartedly, or may even quit reading because she’s sure she knows what’s going to happen.

So if you think your situation might fall into this category, you need to do something to make it less of a cliché. The obvious solution is a twist at the end—but if you’ve already lost your reader, it won’t matter how twisted the ending is. You could make your characters extraordinary…you could write your piece in an unexpected voice or from an unusual POV…you could use an unfamiliar setting. In short, if you’re using a situational cliché, do anything you can to make it totally your own.

HOMEWORK:

1. Pick one 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!

This is my last lesson for 2015, as I’ll be taking a few weeks off to enjoy Christmas and New Year with my family and friends. I’ll be back in early January. However, I’ll still answer replies to this post or to any of the other lessons, and I still welcome questions, comments, or suggestions for future lessons. Merry Christmas, everyone!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby RachelM » Sat Dec 12, 2015 11:04 am

"take the bull by the horns" to "look the dragon in the eye"

I find it's always challenging to replace a cliche, because the reason they're cliches is they're good. Of course they're also tired and lost their meaning, but it takes time to come up with fresh metaphors.

This lesson is timely for me. I do try to avoid cliches, but I just wrote a novel and there's probably several sneaking around on every page. I'll go through my manuscript looking specifically for areas that can use some new paint. (I was going to say "spicing up.")

My plan is to read my book aloud, record it, and listen to it back to find the phrases and words I repeat too often--and now I'll also be watching for cliches. I'll take a look at the program you recommended as well.

Thank you for the great lesson!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby Shann » Tue Dec 15, 2015 1:21 pm

I was surprised you didn't add it was all a dream or the mysterious stranger who was probably an angel because he left a feather or something else behind. Are they not situational clichés or perhaps they fall under another definition? I see these at least once in every challenge quarter.

I think you made some great points. I have to admit defeat in not spotting the Christianese in your sentence. I spotted nothing new under the sun as a cliché. If you said nothing new under the Son, not only would I have spotted it, but I'd have groaned too. Help my feeble mind find it.

I was describing my panic attacks once and wrote I literally climbed the wall. My editor pointed out it was a cliché and I literally couldn't climb the wall. She was correct about the cliché, but not about the literal part. I would scrabble up the headboard, grab the curtains, use the window sill as a foothold, knock some pictures off the wall and cling to anything available.

I was so grateful that she pointed it out. I did think about the literally before I used it, aware that it is misused, but I was climbing walls. The rewrite, however, turned out to be a better mental picture and eliminated the reader from thinking I didn't understand the meaning of the word literally. It was a great lesson. Being aware of it made me a better writer.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby glorybee » Tue Dec 15, 2015 2:16 pm

"Nothing new under the sun" is from Ecclesiastes 1:9. It's Christian-ese that's worked its way into the language in general.

The dream scenario and the mysterious stranger scenario are covered in a few other lessons--the lesson on "good endings" and the one on "the magic ending" cover them, I think. You're right that they're cliche situations, but since I'd covered them before, I wanted to introduce a few more cliche situations that maybe hadn't occurred to folks.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby lookinup » Mon Feb 22, 2016 5:51 pm

Okay, here goes.

"Take the bull by the horns."

My first thought is, "Go for it!" or "Dive in!" but that's a cliche also! My world is full of cliches - help! No really, thanks Jan.

"I'm going to just begin,today - now, and not wait for a "someday"!

2. People don't process cliches in addition to skipping over them - is this being redundant or elaborating? The points of my writing get lost.

3. To emphasize.

4. I recently used a cliche in a Challenge entry preceded by the disclaimer: "- excuse the cliche - " because the cliche worked in its context for that moment.

5. I couldn't find a cliche, though it's interesting how some prepositional phrases sound almost like cliches.

Am excited about the link to the Cliche finder. Best thing since Grammarly, which my writing won't "live" without. :D
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby CatLin » Mon Feb 22, 2016 8:06 pm

I just saw this lesson! My bit of homework for now....
I spotted this possible cliche in your lesson: "you don’t want your writing to slip into automatic..."

I'm thinking on the cliches - it seems they are always hard for me to rewrite.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--Cliches

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 22, 2016 8:38 pm

lookinup wrote:Okay, here goes.

"Take the bull by the horns."

My first thought is, "Go for it!" or "Dive in!" but that's a cliche also! My world is full of cliches - help! No really, thanks Jan.

"I'm going to just begin,today - now, and not wait for a "someday"!

2. People don't process cliches in addition to skipping over them - is this being redundant or elaborating? The points of my writing get lost.

3. To emphasize.

4. I recently used a cliche in a Challenge entry preceded by the disclaimer: "- excuse the cliche - " because the cliche worked in its context for that moment.

5. I couldn't find a cliche, though it's interesting how some prepositional phrases sound almost like cliches.

Am excited about the link to the Cliche finder. Best thing since Grammarly, which my writing won't "live" without. :D


Thanks for this homework--well done. My only comment is that I'm not sure you'd need the disclaimer (#4). If the cliche worked, then no disclaimer was needed, and a disclaimer may weaken the effectiveness of your writing.
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