Those Dreaded Cliches

They infiltrate your manuscripts like fungus. They creep into your writing without you even realizing it. What am I talking about? Those dreaded cliches.

We all know writers should avoid cliches–I was going to write, ‘like the plague’ but I stopped myself. It’s a habit that’s hard to break because cliches are so pervasive, but they are insidious and harmful to your writing.

A cliche will cause an agent to stop reading your manuscript or your query letter. So how do we stop ourselves from using cliches? A writer must have a self-awareness when she finds herself typing a cliche. The writer must stop and think. Is that really the best way to say it? Or is it the easiest. That’s why writers use cliches. When a writer uses a cliche, he is taking the easy way out. Agents and critics know cliches are the signs of a lazy, unimaginative writer.

When I find myself typing a cliche, I pause for a second and think. What’s a better, more original way to say it? How can I summon up more precise language? I’ve often thought writers who avoid using cliches are those who have a great command of the language. They have vast vocabularies and can conjure up just the right word when needed. Michael Chabon is a great example. Read his work and you will discover he has an amazing way of decribing feelings, events, and settings in original, creative ways.

My own view is that the review of the first draft is the time to get all of those cliches out of your system. I don’t spend a lot of time during the first draft in trying to craft the perfect phrase. However, during the first revision, all of those cliches have to go.

It’s a constant battle and one you feel you can never win, but you must fight the urge to use a cliche.

What strategies and tactics do you use to avoid cliches?


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9 responses to “Those Dreaded Cliches

  1. I’m so on board with this post, haha. But I use the same strategy as yourself: trying to pinch away the bland and homogenous, in favor of freshness and precision.

    Often, I’m in a position to critique the work of new, young writers, and this is the largest lesson I seek to give them– that they should learn to hear and see the cliche (instead of arguing for it), and then look at what they are attempting to convey, with fresh eyes. What other word could fit there? Yes, we all feel “burning” love, but what else can we say about it? Where is its source in us?

    As a songwriter (are you sick of these comparisons yet? Should I stick to fiction comments?) cliches are almost expected; but I feel that the worst music in the world is usually composed of strings of cliches, either lyric-wise, or musical phrase-wise. One of the reasons my lyrics aren’t considered “poppy” enough.

    But I’ll go for the poetry every time. If only I could avoid cliches in my forum posts.

    • Mary,
      Thanks for sharing your comments. I see what you see in the work of new writers. I usually mark all their cliches and politely ask them to think of a more original way to write it. I agree completely with you about song lyrics. They are so trite these days. Where is John Lennon when you need him.

      Thanks again!


  2. And cliches can be about more than “whiter than snow” – there is cliche in situations and characters actions/motivations, etc — those are sometimes harder to spot, lawdy!

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