Clichés are everywhere, by their very nature. They appear in movies, on television, and slip into our writing before we can catch ourselves. In fact, cliché comes from the French, meaning stereotype – although, in context, it refers to printing presses1, not actual preconceived notions. They are so popular because they were once witty turns of phrase, that have worn out due to overuse. Also, as humans, we use language to communicate as efficiently as possible. Clichés allow us to convey a lot of information about life in a few short words.
However, clichés make for poor writing. When a phrase has been used for so long, we rarely even hear it or read it anymore. This causes the reader to gloss over your words, causing confusion and disinterest. Too many instances of clichéd writing will make your writing boring and unappealing.
Transform Clichés Into Fresh Prose
Stop yourself when you catch yourself heading into a cliché trap. If you edit after you write, make a note to yourself that there is a cliché that needs editing out. If you edit as you go along, find a way around your cliché. Can your cliché be transformed into a new idea, just by altering a few words? Or should a new phrase be written in its place?
Examine the elements of the cliché, and decide if it is, in fact, what you wish to say. Sometimes, especially in dialogue, clichés can create a mood or indicate the origin of a character’s accent. Whenever you volunteer to let a cliché stay, be sure that there is no other way to write it. Use a light touch, and your readers will understand the impact of your phrase.
Fun Clichés to Play With
There are entire websites devoted to lists of clichés found in the English language. Some are universal, while others may be more common in certain areas of the world. Other languages also have their own clichés, which may not translate the same in English.
Here are a few clichés, and my way of transforming them into an exciting phrase. You can extrapolate your own ideas, and share them with us below!
- Never look a gift horse in the mouth – I don’t know about you, but I’ve never actually met a horse with a gift. If I were tempted to use this admonishment in a story, I might twist it around to say “Never look in a horse’s mouth for a gift”, which could be a far more useful warning for the story.
- A diamond in the rough – Again, another cliché that doesn’t quite make sense. You can’t polish a lump of coal and get a diamond. “A diamond with a few rough edges” would be more apt, but the phrase doesn’t have as much impact.
- Leave no stone unturned – This phrase was probably considered clever once. Nowadays, unless you are looking for an insect, turning over stones won’t get you very far. A guard in one of my stories might say “Turn out all the peasants into the streets!” when looking for my hero.
- A baker’s dozen – It is far easier to write the word thirteen, and takes less effort for the reader to understand. This cliché is unnecessary, unless used in dialogue as stated above.
Clichés are part of language for a reason, but can often be slashed out of your writing without anyone missing them. Don’t be afraid to play around with them, and see what can be done to polish them into outstanding witticisms. Just do not be surprised if the cliché is overworked to the point that it needs to be let go for good.
What are your favorite hackneyed clichés? Have you ever turned a tired phrase into a sterling piece of prose?