One of the most difficult things for authors to do is improve the tone or style of our writing. Tone especially is a nebulous, hard-to-define quality that is essential to the reader’s enjoyment of our work, but we rarely get specific feedback about it, or find any way we can fix it if something is wrong. And feedback is essential, because these qualities are so intuitive that it is difficult to self-analyze. It’s easy to figure out that you use more commas than most writers. It’s much more difficult to realize that you sound “preachy,” and even harder to fix the problem.
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. Continue reading “Avoid clichés like the plague?”