The sky’s the limit to the number of clichés that can infiltrate writing. In fact, I intend to dump a truckload into this article to illustrate why writers should avoid them like the plague.
However, I also believe we ought to tip our hats to clichés. These standbys started as breaths of fresh air—old (or new) ideas framed in unique ways. Because the phrases were crafted well, people repeated them until overuse rubbed off the gilding. Now they’re commonplace. But I still appreciate their origins, and I’m going to show you how to dig out the creative potential buried beneath them.
1. Reveal Clichés
To get the ball rolling, you’ll first need to identify the clichés in your manuscript. Some may not need to be altered. Short sayings like “tongue tied” or “in a jam” won’t raise too many eyebrows.
Others stand out like a sore thumb and need to be addressed. Highlight obvious phrases to revisit, such as “a labor of love” or “down in the dumps.” Those come across as annoying, unimaginative, or lazy. In addition, despite being employed to clarify an idea, familiarity might cause your audience to overlook the more subtle aspects of the point you’re hoping to convey. Muddy the waters, so to speak. Worse yet, an ill-fitting cliché can knock your audience out of the story world. (Imagine Conan the Barbarian “tooting his own horn.” Wrong. So wrong.)
Here is a general rule of thumb: if you’ve heard the phrase before, it doesn’t match your voice, or it sounds stale, it’s probably a cliché. If you’re still uncertain, search online for a list of clichés, or print one off to keep handy.
Now that you’ve set your sights on the clichés that have cropped up, you can begin weeding them out of your manuscript.
2. Rewrite to Erase Clichés
With each cliché you’ve marked, pause to evaluate its meaning. Chances are, when you pick it apart, you’ll realize that it doesn’t adequately communicate your intentions. Rewriting is your ace in the hole. By elaborating the details, you not only root out the cliché but also help readers better understand the situation.
For example, consider the cliché embedded in these sentences:
Panic hit me. The art exhibit opened in ten minutes, and even though the dog used my sculpture as a chew toy, the show must go on.
“The show must go on” is a cliché meaning that no matter what happens, the event can’t be canceled. It contains an element of truth (that’s why clichés invade in the first place). But the phrase comes across as flippant and detracts from the urgency the character feels. When I give rewriting a whirl, the cliché disappears, leaving behind a more powerful description of the action and emotion.
Panic hit me. The art exhibit opened in ten minutes, and even though the dog used my sculpture as a chew toy, I would not let six months of tedious work end up in the garbage. I had to salvage this mutilated masterpiece somehow.
3. Repurpose Clichés
You can reinvent the wheels that make a cliché move by capitalizing on readers’ familiarity with it. Simply preserve enough of the original wording to anchor it in readers’ minds and then substitute equivalent terms that are relevant to your setting. For instance, for a war-based culture, author Gabrielle Pollack changes “don’t judge a book by its cover” to “don’t judge a fighter by the size of his scars.” Brilliant, right?
You can hone this technique with practice. Brainstorm all the alternatives to “get off your high horse” that suit your needs.
- Fairy-tale world—get off your fancy unicorn
- Magical world—get off your zoom broom
- Steampunk world—get off your armored airship
- Dystopian world—get off your Mad Max
Now play around with this one: “burn the candle at both ends.”
- Fairy-tale world—burn the dragon at both ends
- Magical world—burn the spell at both ends
- Steampunk world—burn the lantern at both ends
- Dystopian world—burn the Molotov cocktail at both ends
4. Run with Clichés
Again, Gabrielle suggests another ingenious approach to clichés: add a twist before and/or after the cliché so it reads like a pun. You could mesh “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” with “because you might get hungry for an omelet.” This will be such a bolt from the blue that readers are less likely to bat an eye. Then you won’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water!
Gabrielle’s method sounded like such a lark that I had to try my hand at it:
- It takes two to tango, unless you have kids, and then you’re too exhausted to do anything.
- I’m tickled pink, but that’s only because I laughed so hard that I fell over and landed in a strawberry patch.
- It’s the end of the road for you—that’s what happens when you don’t stop and ask for proper directions.
- You shouldn’t change your tune because you really can’t carry one.
- The police officer didn’t just throw the book at him, he offered him a new library card.
- When he pursues a job, he’s so aggressive that he doesn’t just get his foot in the door, he brings a truck inside with him.
- Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead, examine its whole body for flaws.
How clever can you be? I challenge you to give this a shot. Here are some clichés you might enjoy experimenting with:
- Open a can of worms
- Two left feet
- Out to lunch
- Let the cat out of the bag
- Hit the nail on the head
5. Reinvent Clichés with Synonyms
When writers discover a cliché in their manuscripts, sometimes they struggle to replace it. If you’re stuck in this kind of rut, don’t throw in the towel. Instead, grab your thesaurus and begin coming up with synonyms to plug into the cliché. Keep in mind that the goal is more than a quick word swap, however. You’re building a springboard for deeper thought.
- Target one or two words in the cliché. Exchange each one with a synonym.
- Observe how those tweaks affect the feel of the phrase.
- Continue following that train of thought. What happens? (If you’re like me, this exercise often spurs my mind to take more intuitive leaps.)
- Tap into that creativity and reinvent the cliché.
As you might notice, you’ll glean a similar result to the rewrite technique in my second point. However, instead of starting from scratch, you’re folding and bending the cliché like clay. You may have to put your nose to the grindstone and tinker with the wording for a while, but that’s half the fun. Watch this cliché’s gradual transformation:
“Turn lemons into lemonade.”
- This phrase represents the action of sweetening something that’s sour.
- Substitute convert for turn and duds for lemons.
- And what is lemonade? Something good.
Version 1: Convert duds into something good.
- Choose a second round of synonyms for convert, duds, and good.
Version 2: Change disappointments into something excellent.
- Now comes the complex part. The cliché should differ enough from the original to allow you to appraise it with fresh eyes. Kick this new word combination around for a while.
- My mind went this direction: the cliché compares two extremes. Everyone wants to change disappointment to victory. But how? Ahhh, insight. We can do that by shifting our mindset.
- Now I put that idea into words a child might understand.
Version 3: Don’t view hardship as a loss—view it as an opportunity to discover a new path to victory.
Here’s another one without the explanations—just for grins. Do you see the progression?
- Love is blind.
- Devotion is sightless.
- Passion is unseeing.
- Complete adoration of another person before you truly know them might cause you to overlook potentially devastating flaws in a relationship.
6. Remove Clichés
Writers sometimes insert clichés into their drafts as placeholders. Like a bull in a China shop, their brains have already moved on to the next sentence, the next scene, the next chapter. When they return to the clichés later, they must weigh their options. They can try one of the methods above. Or, if the cliché doesn’t add anything to the story (as in the quote below), they can throw it out the window.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. With one bad decision, I lost everything I had won—my job, my boyfriend, and my pride. The worst part? I wasn’t sure which loss I mourned the most.
The two sentences that follow the cliché describe the same circumstances. Delete the cliché, and the paragraph reads stronger.
With one bad decision, I lost everything I had won—my job, my boyfriend, and my pride. The worst part? I wasn’t sure which loss I mourned the most.
Get More Bang for Your Buck
It’s time to turn over a new leaf and incorporate these simple techniques into your editing process. Not only will you keep your voice authentic, you might also coin a phrase that delights readers. Send a cliché packing by rewriting it, repurposing it, running with it, reinventing it, or removing it. Do whatever floats your boat to make your work-in-progress shine like a diamond in the sky.
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?