By Leslie Miller
I’ve seen a lot of cliché-ridden writing lately. As both writer and editor, I know how easy it is for those little buggers to slip into a manuscript. There are scads of them right in this post. They’re easy. They feel right. They say what you are trying to say in a way everyone will “get.” They pop into your head when you’re writing, so why shouldn’t you use them? Everyone else does.
(I can hear my mother saying, “If everyone else decided to jump off a cliff, does that mean you have to do it to?” This was something my mother did say, and it’s also a tired cliché.)
Sure, you can get away with a cliché or two in a book. Your characters can use them occasionally in dialogue. But if a lot of them slip in, the work takes on a very amateur feel. As if the writer doesn’t have a new idea in his or her head. As if he or she has no real command of the language.
You are an author. Words are your kingdom, your field of dreams (cliché), your stock in trade. (cliché).
You are telling a story, hopefully a unique, inventive, clever, compelling one. Why bog it down with tired writing, words that have been used exactly the same way over and over and over again? What does that say about your talent or your ability?
As an editor, I will usually point out clichés and suggest the writer find a fresher, more original way of getting his point across.
If you are writing, really in the flow (that’s probably a cliché), words pouring forth onto the virtual page, and a cliché pops out–fine. Leave it and keep going. But when you revise, keep your eyes open for those pesky little prose killers and rewrite them.
I’m talking about things like “quiet as a mouse.” “Ace in the hole.” “Bent out of shape.” “Heart of gold.”
There are also clichéd characters, like the hooker with the heart of gold or the tired, beaten down alcoholic detective.
There are clichéd plots, like the hero whose mysterious destiny is to save the world. There are clichéd tropes in every genre. If you are not extremely well read, those are even harder to spot than clichéd writing. You think you’ve got a great original idea, agents and editors are all rolling their eyes because it’s the millionth one just like it they’ve seen this month.
Clichéd ideas are just one of the reasons why writers are advised to read, read, and read some more. Do you know original when you see it? Do you know original when you write it?
There are also many things that a new writer might not even realize are clichés.
He smiled. She froze. I laughed. Not clichés in the usual sense, but tired ways of expressing something, and frequently used so much in one book that they turn into cliché. Why not count how many of them appear in your latest manuscript?
There are many different smiles, many different ways to show how someone looked or reacted to a shock or a fright, all kinds of different laughs. Why not paint your reader a stronger picture? Why not add some writing that will show character or advance the plot?
If you’re not sure if something is a cliché or not, try looking at ClichéSite.com. You might be shocked how many expressions in “common” use are considered clichés. And you might be equally shocked at how freely your creativity starts to flow when you decide you aren’t going to use them any more. You’ll have to push yourself. I’m sure it will be well worth it.
So here’s to original writing!