Avoid clichés like the plague?

Author Chris James

There’s no doubt that one person’s cliché is another person’s erudite phrase, but how to handle clichés in your writing deserves careful consideration.

Technically, a cliché is a phrase that was once considered meaningful or novel but which loses its original meaning or effect through overuse. Or, as Salvador Dali put it: “The first man to compare a young woman’s cheeks to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.”

Many problems with written clichés stem from the fact that in spoken English there are numerous common and convenient linguistic shortcuts we all use without thought. On a busy Friday afternoon at work, if a colleague asks you the best way to drive out of the town, it’s natural to respond with, “Well you should avoid that bridge like the plague.” Moreover, the tendency on social networking sites is to write as we speak, so in one window you are writing your current work of fiction, while in the other three you’re having nice chinwags with your friends. This kind of overlap has blurred what used to be a clear distinction between common utterances and what constituted appropriate prose.

However, like every other word and phrase clichés are part of the writer’s armoury and, with judicious use, can be helpful. If I want my reader to have no sympathy for a character, I will have that character describe everything as “awesome” at every opportunity, thus making their excruciatingly painful death all the more pleasurable when it comes. So in direct speech, clichés can help the reader identify character types easily. In fiction with first-person narration (I, me, etc.), clichés can give your reader easy-to-follow clues regarding how reliable and what kind of person the narrator is.

The problems with clichés begin with third-person descriptive passages. As in these sections you – the writer – are communicating directly to the reader, it is vital to avoid or eliminate hackneyed and worn phrases, however helpful they appear at first as you speed through writing your story. Clichés can invade prose in the form of filler phrases as you write on while in your head you juggle the current scene events with future plans and with an eye on what happened 50 pages ago. All too easily an empty, meaningless phrase like “At the end of the day,” can slip from your fingers and lay on the page hoping you don’t notice it. Trust me, these things can remain invisible until after publication, when they grow, spider-like, to take up the whole page of your newly-published work, mocking you and the cold sweat suddenly chilling your spine.

The next danger area is your synopsis or blurb: there are now many hundreds of thousands of books vying for each reader’s attention. You’ll be under a tremendous amount of pressure to hook potential readers with how you describe your story, and rather than try to manipulate a cliché to get a new angle, it can be better to take a step back and simply describe the story. For more advice, see this recent Indies Unlimited post.

Another equally important aspect is what actually constitutes a cliché to your readers. This depends on their age group, geographic location and to some extent personal taste. In researching this post, I came across many sites that list American English clichés that surprised me: some of these expressions I might regard as a little uninventive, but not clichés. Similarly, there are expressions that bring me out in a rash of irritation but which others would likely not notice. As with all language, there is seldom a definite, dated point at which a word or phrase makes those subtle shifts from being “common” to “ubiquitous” to “cliché”. For me, the ubiquitous use of “awesome” signals only that this word’s meaning is changing, from something “awe-inspiring” to something that is “slightly better than mediocre”; although I do expect it to make its deserved leap to cliché shortly, perhaps in the next few days.

As a reader, do you have any particular phrases which drive you away from a story? As a writer, which phrases do you avoid like, er, the plague? Do leave any favourites you have in the comments below.

*     *     *     *     *

Chris James is an English science fiction writer who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published two full-length science fiction novels and, for light relief, tries to write comedy. Recently he published the comedy-picture book The B Team and Me. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

Author: Chris James

Chris James is an English author who lives in Warsaw, Poland, with his wife and three children. He has published three full-length science fiction novels and is currently writing a series of short story volumes inspired by characters in songs from the rock band Genesis. For more information, please visit his website or Amazon author page.

35 thoughts on “Avoid clichés like the plague?”

  1. This is really valuable advice Chris. As a complete novice, I would never had thought about it. It's so different being a reader, than trying to write something for other people to read. Something I might add, that you are an expert at! I only wish I had read this before I entered the Flash Fiction Challenge! Ha! 😉

    1. Thanks, Audrey.

      I think it's important to remember that no word or phrase is "wrong" or "bad" because it's all a question of style anyway. But as a writer, it is important to know the current usage/perception of words and phrases to use them most effectively.

      Good luck in the Challenge!

      🙂

    1. I'm going to put you on speed dial, Tessa, as lie and lay, trip me up every time, so much in fact that I always give writers the benefit of the doubt when I encounter either word, as I'm never sure which is correct. :)))

    2. Tessa,

      Well done you! You've spotted my deliberate mistake in this month's post and so win a manly handshake and hearty slap on the back!

      🙂

      "Lay" and "lie" are two aspects of the same verb, part of a truly horrible part of grammar called transitive and intransitive verbs. This problem is common because although the past and participle forms of "lay" are both "lain", the past simple of "lie" is "lay" (the participle is again "lain", just to confuse things further). It's worth pointing out Micrsoft Word's grammar checker also doesn't know these differences, so for Pete's sake keep a dictionary handy if you need to use this verb, unless of course you want to test your readers' attention.

      😉

      1. You could, on the other hand, say that it lays eggs there, or that it laid eggs there. And I like to point out that two or more people can lay in a bed. (Can't help it, spent 12 years teaching English.)

        1. Ha ha – me too!

          I used to know those forms by heart; the worst was teaching Cambridge Proficiency to non-native speakers, since they always needed to WHY it's like that in English, and they needed to know THE RULE! I used to delight in shrugging my shoulders and saying, "Sorry guys, there are no rules with this," as that always drove them slightly mad.

          🙂

  2. Ah yes, sometimes we do paint ourselves into corners using all sorts of cliches throughout our writing but I find they aren't as easy to catch as, say, hyperbole which to my eye always stick out like sore thumbs.

    I really appreciated this article, it shall remain near and dear to my heart, as I travel this writing path, for I can lessen the impact of my writing all by my lonesome without the added help of old saws and hackneyed cliches.

    (p.s. Most excellent article!)

  3. I could say I trust you, Chris, as far as I can throw you–but I'm a weakling so I'll extend my trust all the way up the writing hill. When I discover a cliche in my writing, every two minutes or so, I see if I can freshen it up instead of getting rid of it. Overall I agree with you. My advice: avoid cliches like the plague of Lymn's Disease here in Connecticut; don't even walk in those trite bushes.

    Oh, and it's okay to use forgotten cliches, if you explain them. My mother used to tell us when we bickered at chores, "Girls, quit your pull-hauling." Now, I owe you an explanation: a pair of oxen who refuse to pull together–first one pulls, then the other hauls–getting no work done. That one went through stages. First it was common knowledge among farmers and a fresh idea; then it was overused and no longer produced the image of two great beasts sabotaging work; then it fell out of use.

    1. Thank you, Trish.

      I think using cliches that have fallen out of use is a fantastic way to add authenticity to a story – and often, I think, the context of the story would be sufficient and an explanation would not be needed. Really good advice, Trish, thanks

  4. "Amazing" is the word that irritates me. It's almost a drinking game, it's become so frequently used. Apparently people are much more easily astonished now than they used to be.

    1. What bugs me the most is when people (mostly teens and 20s) ask, "Do you know what I mean?" or "Do you know what I'm saying?" and they keep right on talking because they don't want an answer. It's simply the latest incarnation of "like" and "you know".

    2. Thanks Krista,

      So my "awesome" is your "amazing" – I think all we can do as writers is acknowledge the ongoing devaluation of the word. We remember when it meant something slightly different, but we have to adapt, however frustrating that might be.

  5. This was a fabulous post Chris, very helpful indeed. There are many cliché words and sometimes they do come in handy as you mentioned! However, other times they can be very annoying…

    1. Hey Dawn!

      Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Take a look around while you're here – you'll find stacks of useful writing advice from people who really know what they're talking about!

    1. He he, Laurie

      🙂

      Now I wouldn't be bothered to see "boot … into oblivion" That strikes me as agreeably alliterative and not at all cliched. In fact, I think that's going in my current WIP, thanks!

      🙂

  6. Agreed, Chris. While in my writing, set as it is in an imaginary world long ago, cliches really have no place, I would use them in dialogue in a current piece, for the sake of authenticity. But in the narrative I would avoid them as much as possible.

    It is interesting, as well, to see the comments, as they show how varied our reactions are to specific ones. Which will affect how we write, as well.

  7. 'Like' irritates the hell out of me, so does the phrase 'you know'. Drives me mad. Sadly I live with someone who uses both, often in the same sentence. Sometimes three words apart (I've counted).

    Great post, Chris!

  8. According to Jerome Stein, even single words can be cliche. For instance, the word “as.”

    “You’re not serious,” she said, as she raised her eyebrow.

    The eyebrow issue is another thing. There’s so much brow-raising going on fiction, you’d think the planet is filled with Mr. Spocks. (Though really, how many people can actually raise one eyebrow and not the other?) Let’s not even discuss the sighing. One would think all our fictional characters have asthma.

  9. Hockey players and other athletes start every interview with "obviously".

    "Obviously, we need to shrink their time and space."

    Many superlatives seem to get caught in this trap. The same thing has happened with fabulous and eclectic.

    I love Trish's comment about forgotten cliches. The south has some wonderful ones. A waitress in Georgia asked us, "ya'll as full as ticks?". I thought she asked if we were full of sticks.

    This is very helpful information, thanks!

    1. That southern cliche is priceless, Lois. Here's another one from the north about oxen. "Don't be such a little off ox." As before, an ox not hauling with his teammate. But when I was a kid I thought my mother was saying "aw fox," like you would say to a very disappointing little fox.

  10. I also loathe cliches and commonalities. While I absolutely adore alliterations, I expect writing to be action translated through lexicon. This is rarely, if ever, achieved with tired, worn-out and predictable words and phrases. While editing a novella for one of my authors, it quickly became clear that this author must feel the same way. I found none of these liver-irking uses English. In fact, the author was pretty creative in his use of the language. Have you ever heard of someone who was as "positive as a proton" about something? 🙂 I had to stop, remember some high school science, and then confirm that indeed, protons were positive, and this new phrase immediately won my favor. Thanks for the article.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: