Avoiding Clichés

There are two kinds of clichés that pop up in writing – language clichés (e.g. dead as a doornail) and character clichés (e.g. the mean cheerleader.) In this post I want to address clichéd language and suggest that purging your writing of tired expressions can infuse it with clarity and power.

Everyone uses clichés in speech. When we talk with our family or friends, we tend to use verbal shortcuts to get our meaning across. Most of us have a mental database of verbal shortcuts that help us communicate succinctly.

“Last night I was so tired, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.”

“We went out dancing on Saturday, and I was dressed to kill.”

If you’re interested in checking out a list of English-language clichés, try this link.

There is nothing wrong with using worn-out expressions in conversation (in fact, if you spoke with dazzling originality every time you opened your mouth, people might find you annoying….) but as writers, we (generally) want to avoid them in prose. They prevent freshness, and can hinder characterization by creating stereotypes in the reader’s mind.

Consider the following example:

Nina knew if anyone was going to find out her secret, it would be her grandmother. Ever since Gram retired and moved in with Nina’s parents, she had her nose in everyone else’s business. A visit with Gram meant getting the third degree, so Nina avoided the house at all costs, except when she was sure the coast was clear.

Maybe that example is a bit of an exaggeration, but it does illustrate my point!

The trouble with clichés is that they often serve as shortcuts to ideas, so they only paint a vague and general picture. In the example above, we know what “type” of character Nina’s grandmother is, but our understanding of her is so broad that she is just a two-dimensional cutout, rather than a fleshed out person. Her existence in the story serves a purpose—it explains why Nina might not stop at her parents’ house—but it doesn’t do much more than that.

Now consider the following revision:

Nina knew if anyone was going to find out her secret, it would be her grandmother. Ever since Gram retired and moved in with Nina’s parents, her conversations had become more like interrogations than chats. As her own life became increasingly empty, she seemed to be trying to fill up with everyone else’s lives. Not wanting to face an endless string of questions, Nina avoided the house most of the time, except for every Wednesday evening—Bingo Night at the senior center. Gram’s life might’ve changed, but she still never missed Bingo Night.

This revision took much longer to write than the cliché-laden version! It takes time to choose the right details without relying on shortcuts, but the effort paid off. Gram is now a woman facing change. We understand that Gram is in transition, and she is coping with a void in her life by asking too many questions and intruding on personal privacy. We also learn that Gram loves bingo, which tells us something about her while letting us know that she hasn’t changed completely. The reader has a much clearer understanding of Gram now that the clichés are gone.

As the writer, you know all the nuances of your characters. However, if your prose relies too heavily on clichés, those nuances won’t reach your readers.

Of course, ridding your writing of clichés is easier said than done (oops—there’s a cliché!) You can’t expect to create a first draft that is completely free of clichés, since they can be hard to notice sometimes. (Like the one in the sentence above! I typed it automatically and probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I wasn’t paying such close attention.)

Also, there might be times you want to leave clichés in place. Some examples of when they might be appropriate:

In dialogue: Since people use clichés as shortcuts in speech, natural dialogue would contain a share of them.

To achieve a desired tone: The best example I can think of for this would be a hard-boiled detective story. Some expressions just go along with a particular genre. The key here is to thoroughly know your genre so you understand what’s expected and what’s allowed.

The funny thing about clichés is that each one was fresh when it was new. The first time someone said, “Actions speak louder than words,” it probably sounded profound! But now that expression has lost its freshness and therefore, its power.

We all want to write (and read!) prose that has power. Culling clichés and infusing freshness is one way to give that power to your prose.

What do you think? Do you find it difficult to avoid the use of clichés in your writing? Do you notice them when you’re reading? Can you think of other exceptions when they may be appropriate? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

9 Responses to Avoiding Clichés

  1. Pat Jan 16 2015 at 7:38 am #

    This is a really great and informative post, Julie. I’ve bookmarked the web page listing all those sayings. Who knew there were THAT many. Also, with your example, I fully understand the point you were making.

    • Julie Jan 16 2015 at 8:08 am #

      Hi Pat! I ALSO was stunned to see that many cliches! (Though I must admit I question that some of them are actually cliches.) Glad you liked the example. It was harder to revise than I expected it would be! 🙂

  2. Stephanie Jan 16 2015 at 7:42 am #

    Great article. Cliche in speech is important. because it is shorthand and maybe it allows people to follow a speaker without being distracted by too many new ideas. Also, it may assist listeners in remembering a speaker’s ideas by providing a landmark.

    Or, maybe not.

    I think I am going to create a reading challenge on my blog beginning on Groundhog day – counting cliches in books based on the list you linked to above. And then maybe mark books without cliches as well.

    • Julie Jan 16 2015 at 8:17 am #

      Hi Stephanie! I agree that cliches in speech serve a purpose. However, when I catch myself using the same one too often, I try to shed it. I think I develop a favorite phrase sometimes – something that seems (to me) to be very precise – and then I overuse it and have to drop it. 🙂
      That challenge you’re planning for your blog sounds like a great idea!

  3. Ashley Farley Jan 16 2015 at 7:53 am #

    My mother speaks in cliches, one long endless list of them. I tried to avoid them when writing as much as possible. A cliche often says exactly what you are trying to impress, but when you go back and read it, the phrase just sounds so worn out and hokey. Great article.

    • Julie Jan 16 2015 at 8:26 am #

      Hi Ashley! I agree that cliches often seem to express exactly what we mean, probably since our language is so infused with them. I know I use them more than I even realize. And yes – “worn” is a great word for how they sound. Originality goes a long way, (except… “goes a long way” is a cliche! Arg!) Thanks for commenting!

  4. Dianne Warner Jan 16 2015 at 10:15 am #

    This is so well written! Cliches abound in certain genres such as YA and Romance. Given more scrutiny these books would have much more literary value and emotional impact. All of us find ourselves writing cliches because they’ve been absorbed into the English language. This is a reminder to focus in on this kind of lazy writing and write quality stories with unique characters. Thank you!

    • Julie Jan 16 2015 at 11:07 am #

      So glad you liked the post, Dianne! It’s so true that cliches have been absorbed into the English language. When I drafted this post, I was stunned by how many I caught myself using. (I cut all but one, but there were probably three more.) Perhaps in a blog post one or two are okay? But yes, in fiction they do permit laziness. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Rowenna Jan 17 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    So true that all cliches were once fresh–I found myself giggling at “Marley was dead as a doornail” when re-reading A Christmas Carol this December!

    And I think you use a bingo, spot-on word in your examples–“revision.” Sometimes it makes sense to stick a cliche in a draft–to get the idea down and move on. But then you have to be ruthless about looking fo them later!

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