“Behind the eight ball.”
“Calm before the storm.”
“Long arm of the law.”
Sound familiar? How about these…
|all walks of life||give the devil his due||never a dull moment|
|all bets are off||hook, line, and sinker||nipped in the bud|
|bitter end||by hook or crook||patience of Job|
|call off the dogs||in the nick of time||paying the piper|
|checkered career||in the same boat||sands of time|
|chomping at the bit||leaps and bounds||selling like hot cakes|
|cool as a cucumber||leave no stone unturned||stick out like a sore thumb|
|cry over spilled milk||lock, stock, and barrel||whirlwind tour|
|fall on deaf ears||above board||winds of change|
|from time immemorial||march of history||writing on the wall|
Clichés are metaphors that have become trite and tired through overuse. They are the writers worst enemy, and readers usually don’t like clichés much either. Writers from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have ranted against the cliché like it was the Devil tempting an innocent seminary student. When these appear in copy, editors usually reach for a blue or red pen and ask the writer to come up with something better (1).
Clichés are lazy. They’re stereotypes. They stand in for feeling and sense, rather than evoking it. They’re supposed to trigger a Pavlovian response in the reader, make them feel something, because of their familiarity. But in fact the only thing they evoke is the mental flicker of awareness that they’ve gone by; they do not evoke a moment in the reader wherein the reader is taken all the way into the story, and feels the experience of the story as an experience. Clichés prevent that from happening. They stifle genuine emotion, and paper over real feelings by saying something simplistic and ultimately phony.
Once you’ve spotted a cliché in your writing, you need to rephrase your sentence. Here are some tips and strategies to help you do this.
9 ways to Avoid Clichés
1. Search before you write. Before you start writing your story or plot, search for everything that is related to the theme of your game. Include original ideas and avoid things that are unreal, for example, if you’re human, in no way should you be expected to understand another race. If you’re unsure about something in your story, more searches always helps. Remember not to fall into a cliché. Create new ideas and search for proof that it is original and not cliché.
2. Freshen up.The majority of clichés in writing arise because of the bad or lazy use of modifiers. You can avoid many clichés simply by freshening up the modifiers, the adjectives, etc. It really can be just that simple.For example: don’t tell me about “dark shadows.” Use a fresher modifier. Describe to me “red shadows” or “thin shadows,” anything but “dark shadows.”
3. Think about what the cliché actually means. Think about the basic sense of the expression: what does it actually mean? You’ll probably find that some key words come to mind either as synonyms or as ‘ingredients’ of the overall meaning. Now you can:
o use one of these key words to replace the cliché altogether
o look them up in a thesaurus to find other alternatives
If you find it difficult to come up with the basic meaning, try looking the cliché up in a dictionary. Then you can use the words in the dictionary definition as a starting point for finding suitable synonyms in a thesaurus.
4. Decide whether you actually need the expression at all. Many clichés are just long-winded ‘fillers’, i.e. words or groups of words used just to maintain the flow of speech, or to pad out a speech or piece of writing. If you identify a clichéd expression of this sort, you can just remove it altogether. Wordy, overused phrases might increase the length of a piece of writing but they won’t improve its general quality.
5. Rewrite your sentence. Replace the clichés in your writing with more effective sentences.
For example: “The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was par for the course.” The meaning of the phrase is what is normal or what it expected.
Try rewriting the sentence as “The 1970s were a time when detention without trial was a normal occurrence.”
6. Be creative. Instead of using stock phrases and images, be creative – but beware! Using the thesaurus has many dangers, such as misusing a synonym that doesn’t quite fit the meaning you want.
7. Keep it real by taking it slow. When I’m writing, I end up with lots of clichés popping up like weeds (yes, this is a cliché) in my writing. It’s fine, that doesn’t mean I’m a terrible writer or a bad person. They are code for bigger ideas. And that’s great! When I go through my work and spot them, they tell me a lot. They tell me the concept I was getting at. They also tell me that I was in a hurry at that point in my draft and now I need to go back and open up that idea, slow down and rewrite it, taking care to understand what my real point was beyond the easy, lazy language of the cliché.
8. Research and read. Reading will help you to learn the clichés well enough that you will be able to develop stories with fewer clichés! Learn how to avoid them by reading articles such as this one. It helps to read stories related to the theme of your story and it also helps to watch out for what you think is cliché and write it down; you will need this research later when you write your own story.
9. Write for quality, not length. There is absolutely no reason to impose arbitrary minimum (or maximum) word counts on your writing (unless demanded by an editor). For example, take blogs. I’ve read insightful blog posts that are only a few paragraphs long and others that seem to go on forever and still hold my attention. If you feel like you’ve made an important point or shared valuable information in a short amount of text, don’t ruin it by padding things out; bigger for the sake of bigger is not better. If you don’t have anything to say and find yourself spewing vile filler then ask yourself what the purpose of that piece of writing is in the first place. There are no rules – nothing has to be included in your writing . If you don’t have anything real to say then it is genuinely better not to say anything at all.
I want to make this one idea really clear: whether something is “technically” a cliché or not is not the point. The point is that you use good, strong language when you write. While you probably can’t avoid clichés altogether, remember:
- Clichés can be a barrier to communication and clear expression.
- Clichés can often be reduced to just one or two words that convey your meaning in a clearer or more original way.
- Clichés can sometimes be removed completely without the meaning of a sentence being affected.
What’s a 10th way a writer can avoid clichés?
1. Yagoda, Ben. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. NY: HarperCollins, 2004.
Image courtesy of Tom Newby Photography.