Cliches – avoid them like the plague

Certain phrases have become a bone of contention for readers who like to call a spade a spade. At the risk of opening up a can of worms, I’m going to take the bull by the horns and cut to the chase. I’m talking about cliches, of course.

A cliché is an expression or phrase that’s so overused it’s become trite or common place. Done to death, in other words. And yes, that was on purpose! It’s inevitable that we’ll use clichés in our writing occasionally. After all, they encapsulate concepts so well. But be on the lookout. An over reliance on clichés is one of the surest signs of an inexperienced writer.

Why do we use clichés?

Clichés spring to mind very easily, which makes some people say they’re a sign of lazy writing. But on a more basic level, we use clichés because they express certain concepts brilliantly – which is why they were created in the first place. They are so good, often we don’t even realise we’re using them. Which is half the problem.

Clichéd expressions are concise, not wordy or clumsy. They create images so vivid that people instinctively understand what they mean. ‘As white as snow’, ‘cool as a cucumber’, ‘like a bull in a china shop’. We know exactly what they’re describing, even if we’ve never actually seen a bull. Or a china shop.

Other cliches are more obscure but we still get them, even if we don’t quite know why. Everyone knows ‘on cloud nine’ describes a blissful state, but do you know why? Well, neither do I. Don’t bother googling it, by the way. I’ve tried. There are as many explanations as you’ve had hot dinners!

Over time, as writers use certain phrases over and over again, they lose much of their original effect. They become hackneyed and predictable, even irritating at times. In other words, they become clichéd. So how can we avoid clichés in our writing? Alternatively, can we use them to good effect?

Avoidance – come up with a fresh phrase

Try re-using a concept from a cliché, but replace it with something fresh. Consider the phrase ‘like a fish out of water’, to feel out of place. You can see why it became a cliché – it conjures up a vivid image that is universally understood. To replace the cliché with a new figure of speech, think of other examples of when someone would feel sorely out of place. I don’t know, how about, ‘like a vegan at an abattoir’? Just a thought.

Use a cliché to better effect – try reversing it

By reversing, I mean take a cliche but change the wording so it means the opposite of the worn-out phrase. This can work well if you’re trying to create a particular effect, such as sarcasm or wry humour. You get the benefit of the familiar vivid image, but you’re still surprising the reader. ‘Flowed like a river’ is a cliché. But let’s reverse it and say that praise for this blog ‘flowed like cement’. Just a prediction …

Parting thoughts

All right, I admit it.

Does this post make sense? Only time will tell. I won’t count my chickens before they’re hatched, but at least I’ve struck while the iron was hot. I’ve put my best foot forward and given my all. I’ve run it up the flagpole, but landed between a rock and a hard place. Now I should come to a grinding halt, or else I’ll talk in clichés until the cows come home …

Any to add?

Feel free to add your favourite clichés in the comments section. I’ll be waiting with bated breath …

Photo credit: CharliePev / Foter / CC BY-NC .astama. is .eugenia. / Foter / CC BY-NC

13 comments

  1. Pingback: How To Avoid A Movie Cliche 101: The Last Shot | Winter Film Awards

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