Writing Clichés: How to Keep them from Killing your Voice

Don’t you love it when you’re writing a rip-roaring piece of prose chock full of Clichesuspense you know the reader gobble up hook, line, and sinker? You’ll have the reader eating out of the palm of your hand and chomping at the bit. There will never a dull moment. You know your piece will leave the reader with her heart racing, her palms sweaty and her knees weak. Breathless. You will leave her breathless.

And, you will leave her bored. Why? The sentences above illustrate writing pregnant with clichés. Don’t believe me? How often have you read “rip-roaring,” “chock full of,” “hook, line and sinker,” etc?  Clichés find ways to entwine themselves within our writing. They get stuck, like a hairball in a cat’s throat, within the voices of our narrators and characters. They get stuck and clog up our own authorial voice.

How does it happen? Clichés are infused in us in many ways. When we’re not writing, we’re speaking. Conversing. Talking with one another. Clichéd phrases bond us, help us relate to one another, and in many ways, define us. If a North Carolinian friend, family-member or coworker tells you about a restaurant with sweet tea that’s good enough to make you want to slap your grandma, you better listen. That’s some serious sweet tea.

But clichéd writing is defined by more than just overused colloquialisms. Clichés are sometimes less bold in their approach. They may not smack us across the face, but instead, slither snakelike into our work. Think about vomiting. Two out of three authors in a novel group I am involved in described it as “bile creeping up the back of the throat” or the character as “swallowing back bile.” A. I am not convinced that is physiology of vomit. B. It was obvious to me that this has become a clichéd way to write about vomiting.

Cliché writing mechanisms also haunt an author’s vision. Examples include characters describing themselves in unnatural ways: “I pulled my strawberry blonde hair into a high ponytail.” There is a buffet of clichéd ways to describe a smile: smirk, sneer, and grin. Not to mention tears: welling, bubbling to the surface, caught in the back of the throat, etc. Writers, who are often readers, read these ways of describing things repeatedly, and then embed them in their own writing.

Clichés become cultural writing crutches on which we rely when we can’t force our minds to invent new and creative ways of describing something. How do we get past them? Let your mind be your guide. When you are in the constructing stage, write. Let your brain go places that scare you. Let it think up new cocktails of words. Then, when you are in the editing stage, proofread. Proofread with your mind conscious of clichés. And then, proofread again. When you find one, and you will, slaughter it. Reword the sentence. Use different phrasing. If all else fails, start from scratch.

Finally, as my Intro to Creative Writing professor instructed our class, find a dictionary you could have a love affair with, and have one.


4 thoughts on “Writing Clichés: How to Keep them from Killing your Voice

  1. That´s pretty much hope I do it. I don’t mind the clichés she Im writing, I just write to get everything written on that paper of all what I have in mind. THEN I proofread and fix the clichés. In time I learned how to recognize some of them before I put then on print.

    Thanks for sharing a great lesson.


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