How to Find Cliches in Your Writing
By Dell Smith
When I revise my stories, much of my time is spent finding and eradicating clichés in my prose. Clichés can be difficult to spot. But a clinical, hard look at our work is not just practical to achieve good writing, it’s necessary. The fewer clichés in our work, the better. Let’s take a closer look at what clichés are, how to find them in your writing, and what to do about them.
What is a cliché? Clichés are boilerplate phrases and overused terms that are part of popular vernacular. “He was lying of course, it was written all over his face.” We’ve all heard this a thousand times. We’ve said these words, and in this order. You can tell it’s a cliché because “it” wasn’t actually written all over his face. If it were, it would be on his forehead, his cheek, and across his mouth. Instead of describing what is actually happening to the character, the author is plugging in generalities that the reader has to interpret.
I use clichés as placeholders when I write a first or second draft. While tapping the emotion of the moment I may not know the perfect words to use. Later, I’ll come back with more objective eyes and manhandle these words down to their core meaning. Instead of writing “…it was written all over his face,” what words should you use?
Let’s revise it: “He was lying of course, I could tell by the way he blinked when he answered my questions, rubbing his arms red.” In my fictive world, this is how I convey lying. Ask yourself: how should my characters act in this situation?
When a cliché is okay to use. Normal people talk in clichés. Your characters probably talk in clichés. That’s, well, normal. Clichés in internal monologue are okay too, but don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s hard to spot a cliché. How about, “She burst into tears.” Is this a cliché? That’s a tough call. I might let it stand. People do spontaneously cry. The downside of trying to eradicate all clichés is overwriting: “Suddenly her eyes watered, and she forced out a shriek as her body rhythmically convulsed to the waves of tears she had no control over.” That’s just too wordy, too…much. Sometimes just writing basic description is enough. If you rid your prose of ten clichés, then it’s okay to keep “She burst into tears” as the eleventh.
Time: the cliché’s biggest enemy. Clichés are afraid of time. Clichés want you to finish your book in six months and send it off with minimal revision. But time away allows you to come back to your writing with a renewed, clinical eye. You forget the emotions experienced when you originally put your words to paper. You can see more clearly when your plot and descriptions aren’t working. Dialogue that you knew was meaningful yet realistic now comes across as melodramatic. Your writing will be truer when you spend more time revising. Eventually you’ll wash out most clichés, staying true to your story.
What Do I Mean By True? Clichés are dishonest. Clichés rob the reader of a true reading experience. It’s a Big Mac instead of filet mignon. It’s all gristle, no meat. It’s describing a woman as “gorgeous,” and having all the other characters agree, without adding further description. What makes somebody gorgeous? Say what you mean. Describe how this woman is attractive to the narrator. “When she smiled, her eyes crinkled to almond shapes. Her laugh was guttural, and just for me. She curled her hair around her finger, a gesture at once nervous and anticipatory.” You take it from here.
So take your time, write what you mean. Your readers will thank you for it.