Aah-ite! If there’s one thing I find even more annoying than pronouncing “all right” this way, it’s gratuitous use of clichés. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you hear them everyday. They’re as common as flies on poop! In fact, they’ve become so ubiquitous, our ears are becoming numb to their presence. What does this say about folks who toss clichés around like fairy dust? What does this say about all of us?
Ever kill two birds with one stone? Or clean them out in one fell swoop? I don’t know about you, but I never keep my eggs in a basket. They sit in their cozy cartons in the fridge. They’re on the shelf just under the butter and right next to the clichés.
Just like that fridge, our brains are like automated cold storage devices, with shelf after shelf of accumulated thoughts and ideas. Some ideas are edgy and fresh, while some are as stale as last week’s milk. It’s time to rearrange our mental shelves and toss out some of the spoiled verbiage we’ve collected.
“But I like that cliché,” I hear you saying. “It makes me feel warm and fuzzy, and surely everyone will recognize it and be comforted by its familiarity.”
Not so fast! What does familiarity breed? Not prize roses. But here I go having to use a cliché to explain why we should eschew clichés!
Let’s look at this from the point of view of an agent or publisher considering investing time. money, or both into your literary gem. Your opening “hook” is magnificent. She’s hungry for more. Her eyes tear at paragraph two and are slammed by the commonest of clichés. Her breathing slows, her eyes glaze over, her ears fill up with wax, and she chucks your masterpiece into the slush pile.
Why do clichés invoke such a strong reaction? Simple. They represent a commonness of thought. What agent or publisher wants to represent common thoughts? Chances are good if you have a cliché right there on page one, you probably have them strewn about like unexploded land mines all throughout your work. Let’s face it, choice of common words or phrases indicates a lukewarm or common intellect. It’s a real deal-killer!
Even some of the devices we use to spice up our writing can be hackneyed and cliché. For example everyone knows (and I do speak for everyone!) that use of simile and metaphor can make your descriptions really pop. That is, unless your similes and metaphors are worn out clichés.
Here are some examples:
The track star ran like the wind.
The old cur dog is ugly as sin.
The diva sings like a canary.
The deputy is as dumb as a box of rocks.
She’s a brick house.
He’s a real dog (unless you’re referring to Old Yeller).
She’s the apple of my eye.
He’s a real live wire.
You’re all that and a bag of chips.
So what’s the best way to exorcise the cliché demons in your writing? Try a two-fold approach. First, show your work to someone whose opinion you value. Yes, it can be your mother, provided she is educated and knows how to spot a cliché. Second, let your work sit on the shelf for a few weeks, then when you go back to it, you will see it with fresh eyes.
When you or your mother find worn-out clichés in your work, show no mercy! Remove them immediately. Send them to Bit Heaven and don’t look back. Then find some unique way of expressing yourself. Be bold and daring. What’s more unique — a rumble of thunder or a complaint of thunder? Train yourself in the art of “convergent divergence.” That means take concepts that don’t seem connected, and make them seem like they’ve always been together. Put them in a blender and spin out some traffic-stopping similes.
John sat alongside the road like a bucket of old paint.
The spider’s webbing stuck to Ely’s finger like a radioactive booger. (Forgive the 16 years I spent teaching middle school!)
Brittany grabbed the football player like a famished Venus fly trap.
Now you’re getting the spirit. So don’t just sit there like an elephant’s used facial tissue. Start cranking out your masterpiece without using worn-out clichés. Even your mother will love you more!
Until next time, may your similes shine and your metaphors move. Happy writing!