Thursday, June 11, 2015

My War against Cliches

Do Cliches Drive You Nuts?
We are told to avoid cliches like the plague. I've always found that very difficult to do. Here is some interesting history about how they came to be named.

Way back in the eighteenth century, a particular kind of printing tool was invented, using metal plates with letters arranged on them. This was thought to be a quick, cheap way to print something over and over again. It was called a stereotype. The word they chose to describe the sound the stereotype made while operating was cliche. I would have imagined it to be more like the English word 'click' but there you have it. Although this method of printing was found to be faster and more economical, the quality of work produced by the stereotype was far more dubious than setting up fresh printing blocks every time. For each project, printers had to choose whether to get it over and done with quickly with the use of the stereotype, or take a bit more effort to create something new.

In my dictionary, the definition of stereotype is 'a person or thing considered to represent a set or conventional type.' It's older meaning isn't even mentioned, presumably lost. And cliche, of course, means a phrase we've heard or read so often that it's lost its punch and no longer carries meaning or excitement.

One of my kids once said, in all seriousness, 'If Shakespeare was so good, he used lots of cliches.' Ha, poor Shakespeare invented them when they were still fresh and original. I suppose having one's work over-used until it joins the ranks of cliches is the ultimate compliment to a writer.

When I first started writing, I was sad at being told not to use cliches. I liked them a lot and didn't want to sacrifice phrases like, 'I held on by the skin of my teeth.' They tickled my fancy (is that a cliche?)

Someone told me, 'If you're a good enough writer, you should make up your own new images without being lazy and cruising by on somebody else's ancient ones.'

I could see my mentor's point. 'Okay, I'll go through the manuscript and search for every cliche with a fine tooth comb.' Oops, every spoken word seemed to prove that I even thought in cliches. I knew the job would be harder than I anticipated, but I was determined to weed out every one (another one).

After a lot of thought, I came up with what I thought was a perfect, un-cliched, fresh and original new image. I wanted to show in one scene how nervous the hero and heroine were around each other. They were both as jittery as a pair of long-tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs. 'There, that'll have to get me a gold star. Oops, I think that's another cliche. Oh well, at least that one's not in the book.'

When it came back from the editor, my painstaking sentence about cats and rocking chairs had been slashed out. In the margin, she'd written, 'A startling image pulls the reader's attention away from the flow of the story. Avoid.'

'Huh, does that mean a cliche might have been a better choice after all, then? They don't pull attention away like that?' I wasn't trying to be difficult. I just wanted to know.

'What do you think?'

I knew the answer I was supposed to give. I could have said my heart sank, but wanted to avoid cliches. It was back to the manuscript for me, shaking my head. 'This writing stuff is harder than I ever thought it would be. I might stop, if I wasn't already in too deep. Yikes, is that another cliche? If I can't help living them, how am I supposed to avoid writing them?'

'Okay, back to the drawing board. And I think I just spouted another cliche. Never mind, it's time to get on with this. I'm not supposed to use cliches, and I'm not supposed to use fresh images which may come across as too startling, yet I'm still supposed to tell an engrossing story which will draw people in. Fiction authors must be like super heroes, and I don't even care if that's a cliched thing to say.' At that moment, I understood something that many people might not get about authors. Ease of flow in a story does have an illusory quality about it. The less effort it takes the reader to enjoy, the more hard work the author may have put in to make it that way.

All this angst took place some time ago, and I think I may have learned a tip or two in the intervening years. It takes a lot of practice to refine writing, as with any other skill. We don't need to treat cliches like vermin and set out to exterminate every single one, because they are insidious critters and will often sneak in when we least expect it. Some even wriggle their way past editors' eagle eyes. Yet having said that, if we continue to weed them conscientiously, it's bound to improve the overall quality of our work. And the more time we spend writing, the more adept we grow at coming up with our own subtle original images, without having to fling them in readers' faces, as if to say, 'Look at this!'


  1. I think it's impossible to avoid cliches completely in writing, especially in dialogue. Let's face it - people use them all the time! But I think we need to be careful how many times we use them.

    1. I agree completely, Lynne. Be careful not to use too many without going over the top to remove every single one.

  2. Yesterday I was trying to avoid using the cliche "the apple of her eye". I really wanted to emphasize how dear this person was to another. I ended up using one word - "favourite". Oh well ....

    1. Oh dear, Jo'Anne, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I personally like 'apple of her eye' too, but what can we do? Perhaps those are types we can allow to slip through from time to time.

  3. Great post. I was like you Paula - I loved my knowledge of sayings and cliches - but have had to shed them. I liked the way they keep creeping in (cliche) your post. With fantasy, I have an added layer - whatever images I use have to be appropriate to my narrative world.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      I can understand that in your genre, it must be even more vital to shed these cliches. You can get away with a few when your books are set in the contemporary world like mine, but for you, one of those trite little sayings introduced in your world might really stand out.