It’s the Elizabethan era. You’re at the theater seeing a first-run Shakespeare production. The language is both startling and mesmerizing…
|vanished into thin air|
break the ice
in a pickle
too much of a good thing
the long and short of it
neither rhyme nor reason
|without rhyme or reason|
play fast and loose
something rotten in Denmark
at one fell swoop
refuse to budge an inch
all’s well that ends well
heart of gold
|refuse to budge an inch|
a fool’s paradise
all that glitters isn’t gold
every dog will have its day
The originality is breathtaking. A rough day. Who would have thought to depict the toll of one’s experience with a tactile sensation?
No one had put it quite that way before. No one had captured the feeling, the meaning so acutely. It hits the world’s stage as nothing short of artistic genius. Such is the origin of the cliché. So creative, so exact, its debut seizes the audience… who will who quote it into culture.
But words only have power when their coupling and arrangement are new. Age and exposure dulls their image, and the figures of speech continue to exist by default.
And while artists might revel in words, we’re not immune to the effects of society. Clichés find their way into the work of some the most practiced writers. Learning to avoid them and recognizing those that eluded us in early drafts is a leap towards crafting stronger, clearer, and more consistently original writing.
Would the expressions below suspend you in their magic? Would you pause to appreciate the writer’s dexterity?
stiff as a board
his blood boiled
head over heels
cold as a fish
come to a head
|bite the bullet|
clever like a fox
wise as an owl
can of worms
his blood ran cold
nip it in the bud
up in the air
|a heart as big as all outdoors|
beat a dead horse
light as a feather
ball is in your court
thin as a rail
blessing in disguise
tip of the iceberg
If a writer lives in blissful ignorance that clichés are the kiss of death, if in the final analysis he leaves no stone unturned to use them, we can infer that he lacks instincts for what gives language its freshness. Faced with a choice between the novel and the banal, he goes unerringly for the banal. His voice is the voice of a hack. —Zinsser
Which would you prefer to read? The whiskey could strip the enamel off your teeth. Or from John Updike’s Rabbit Run, “The whiskey tasted hateful”?
How many times has boredom reduced you to tears? Surely, then, you can come up with something fresher. Maybe he was bored into flossing his teeth with his nails.
The cliché’s value in the world of art ranks lower than the Mona Lisa plastered on a coffee mug. Unless they’re spoken by a character as a means of characterization, they’re saboteurs of the writer’s intent.
Avoiding clichés isn’t merely about art and improving our writing. Avoiding clichés is about communication, about conveying what we set out to convey. Clichés, of course, are understood. They’re just not heard.
Once upon a time (and occasionally, if not rarely, in our present day) survival depended on our ability to respond to external stimuli, including verbal cues from within our ranks. To that end, our brains came programmed to interpret language with optimal speed and accuracy. One way they achieve this is by learning to “tune out” overused words and phrases.
Scientists studying language response with neural imagining have found that clichés are filtered out before reaching the language centers of our brains. In other words, they amount to white noise. Clichés do not communicate. I repeat:
CLICHÉS DO NOT COMMUNICATE.
As writers we need to grab hold of that truth. We need, in fact, to retrain our brains to hear these mute interlopers so we can detect and annihilate them.
When evaluating your imagery, ask yourself:
- Is this mine? Did I come up with the analogy?
- Did I explore the possibilities and weigh them against each other?
- Did I mimic something I had read elsewhere?
Rewrite the trite. Whenever a cliché corrupts your writing, visualize what you’re trying to convey. Then stretch for a new image. And sometimes the cliché provides a model or launching point. For example:
Needle in a haystack
Coin in a button factory.
Fly poop in a pepper shaker (I read that somewhere, no kidding.)
He ate like a pig
He ate more than a Vegas slot machine.
Brown as a nut is so familiar that as a nut doesn’t make the compared object browner than brown. One might, though, rework the cliché:
The woman’s skin was the color of a walnut shell and just as wrinkled.
As with tone, rhythm, and other stylistic considerations, the writer relies on his sensitivity. The more he works at it, the more sensitive and skilled he becomes.
Instead of saying out of control, here’s how Richard Ford depicted his hero’s state of mind in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Independence Day.
I’d start to fear I was letting everything go, that my life was spinning crazy-out-of-azimuth, proportion and common sense flying out the window like pie plates. Then I’d realize that years later I’d look back on this period as a “bad time,” when I was “waaaay out there at the edge,” my everyday conduct as erratic and zany as a roomful of chimps, only I was the last to notice (again, one’s neighbors would be the first: “He really sort of stayed to himself a lot, though he seemed like a pretty nice guy. I wouldn’t have expected anything like this!”).
Explain the meaning of the following clichés. Then write new metaphorical expressions for those meanings.
Bang for the buck
Bought the farm
Bust your chops
Calm before the storm
Hook, line and sinker
Level the playing field
Moment of truth
No more Mr. Nice Guy
Raising the bar
Taken to the cleaners
Tower of strength