We’re on the verge of summer, and that means I’m attending graduations (including my oldest son’s). Whether you are attending one for a friend or family member or yourself, commencement ceremonies are a great place for inspiration and one other thing: cliché-hunting.
I do not envy speakers at graduations. They have the monumental task of wrapping up a significant life experience and paying tribute to supporters, all while delivering an inspiring launch address. We could probably compare notes on the speeches we’ve heard and reduce them to a few overdone ideas and phrases. Heard any of these?
Life is a road…
This closes one chapter of our lives…
When a door closes, a window opens…
These, my friends, are clichés. Clichés are overused phrases or metaphors that weaken our writing. As writers, we want to hunt down, drag out, and kill clichés in our writing. (I know, the killing metaphor is also probably cliché. I’m still working on it.)
Here are some ideas for how to avoid clichés in our writing.
Write them out
When working on a first draft, just write. Don’t stop your writing flow to eliminate a cliché or you may find yourself lost online researching better ways to write the character “made out like a bandit” or “got a knuckle sandwich.”
(Translation: “made out like a bandit” means made a good deal or escaped; “got a knuckle sandwich” means punched in the mouth.)
Our language is riddled with these phrases, so don’t be surprised if some work their way into your writing. Once you have a draft, then you can revise.
If you want to practice intentionally avoiding clichés in a first draft, though, think as visually as possible. Imagine you are writing a movie scene. When you write with the visual in mind, it is harder to write “knuckle sandwich” because the literal visual of that phrase, “a sandwich made of knuckles,” is problematic (unless you’re writing horror, of course).
Hunt them down
Once you have a draft, begin looking for the phrases and metaphors that are overdone. Warning: once you begin looking for these, you will see them everywhere, like the “roads” and “chapters” of graduation speeches.
You can search online for comprehensive lists of clichés to get you started, but I’m betting you already know a few, and some are genre specific.
In romance, we often see eyes described like jewels (“glittering sapphires”), skin like some food item (“caramel torso”). In thrillers, we often read “We’ve got company” to signal the arrival of conflict in the form of good or bad guys.
Before you get discouraged, recognize that most clichés were once fresh and exciting, but their use over time deadens them. If you look up expressions we get from Shakespeare, you will find that he coined a host of phrases still in popular use today. Most are also cliché, such as “wearing your heart on your sleeve” (from Othello) and “make your hair stand on end” (from Hamlet).
If you struggle to find clichés in your own writing, get help from an outside reader or critique group. A fresh set of eyes, while cliché, really can help you find them in your work.
The main problem with clichés is not that they are unclear, but that they are boring and predictable. If the reader can finish the phrase without reading, guess what? They stop reading. To solve this problem, get specific as you revise.
Instead of “He gave him a knuckle sandwich,” describe the fight.
Instead of “She made out like a bandit at the tag sale,” show her loading the back of her van in a frenzy with two televisions, lamps, and clothes on hangers.
Get visual and describe what is happening instead of relying on a tired phrase. Instead of writing “kill the cliché,” I need to write, “find the overused phrase and replace it with something better.”
Avoid clichés like the plague
Clichés naturally sneak into our writing. Now that you know how to avoid clichés, go be specific in your writing.
What fresh ways will you use to describe familiar experiences in your stories?
What clichés do you notice most in writing or speeches? Share in the comments.
Today, you have two choices for practice.
Option 1: Choose a popular cliché either from your own writing or a list online and rewrite it into something more specific.
Option 2: Take today's article to the logical extreme. Write a story using as many clichés as you can cram into it. Your prompt: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.