March 13

Clichés and original thought

Okay, I confess. I love clichés! Although my editor struck most of them from my latest book, she allowed me to keep a couple of my favorites — which made me happy as a clam!

And if I had been editing a manuscript of some other author who used those same clichés, I would have struck them, too. A cliché is a sign of a lack of original thought (ouch, it hurts to make that confession!). So the only way to replace a cliché is to come up with something original — some kind of statement that conveys what you are trying to say in a fresh way.

The problem is, we tend to be blind to our own mistakes — probably that’s why we keep making the same ones over and over again! So you’ll never find your clichés unless you deliberately look for them.

Read through your manuscript and take note of particular phrases that sound vaguely familiar. Then do a global search for them in the entire manuscript. Some phrases, such as “on the other hand” or “in a little while” are not exactly clichés, but are often overused. If such phrases turn up more than three or four times, remove most of them. If a phrase is a bona fide cliché, strike it out! (My editor is laughing at me over that advice, I’m sure.)

Once you find a cliché, how do you fix it? One simple way is to create a new one, like “. . . hungry as a horse supermodel on a diet.” Or merge them so they play off each other, like “When you’re over the hill, you start picking up speed.” But you can’t do that with every one of them. You may need to rethink what you are trying to say. Maybe it’s as frayed, faded and tired as the cliché you are using.  Maybe you need to improve the content of your material.  Maybe you need to express it in a fresh way, looking for a whole new aspect of the issue.

Let me show you a couple of clichés my editor found (crossed out) and the replaced wording (in red).

Sometimes an idea seems to just write itself. Other times you have to plug away at it feel like your creativity is trying to run with a sprained ankle.

But sometimes you’re just beating a dead horse trying to capitalize on an idea with an inherent flaw, and instead of capitalizing, you should be euthanizing!

As you can see, the solution to a cliché may sometimes be to add more information. A cliché can often be a spot in your manuscript where you lose the reader, because the tired phrase contains assumed information — you’ve stopped talking to your reader and you’re talking to yourself. (You know, they put people away for things like that!)

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.

Posted March 13, 2011 by Dave Fessenden in category "6. Revision


  1. By Vie on

    This is your editor laughing. Need I say more?

  2. By Linnette on

    LOL, Dave! You’re stuff is always fresh even when you use cliches. It’s always uniquely you. 😀

  3. By Esther Lovejoy on

    Thanks for these words. They have helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll take the bull by the horns, get the lead out, and pull myself up by my bootstraps to avoid the use of cliches.

  4. By sandy cathcart on

    You know what, Dave…I’m going to disagree here. Lately I’ve been noticing that writers are so stuck on adhering to rules that they are missing the story. You saw that the above changes were wordy. Your gut told you that being too wordy was not a good thing. Your gut told you right!

    Truth is…the above is better WITH the cliche’s. They’re more you…and YOU are the one I come here to read … not the you someone tells you to be. Cliche’s in dialogue have always been allowed BECAUSE they are the way people speak. Sooooo, I would say when you’re speaking here to us…cliche’s are allowed because that’s the way you speak. Otherwise, when I come here to read your words, I will be disappointed because it is no longer the Dave I know.

    NOW….if you are writing a book with lots of characters and every one of them speak in cliches, then that will NOT work.

    Another thing to consider … if every sentence you write is clever and over the top, they will become too difficult for your reader to process.

    Just some thoughts…I like the way you talk…it’s so entirely you!

  5. By Dave Fessenden (Post author) on

    Well, gee, Sandy, I’ve never had anyone disagree with me so nicely before! Thanks for all the wonderful compliments. This issue of writer and editor is going to be my next post, I think.

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