Let’s Slay the Cliché

September 21, 2014
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Let's slay the clicheThe other day I was reading the first few pages of an indie author’s latest book. It was someone whose work I was familiar with, although I had not read anything they had written lately.

After just a couple of pages I had an uneasy feeling. Something wasn’t working, like a car whose engine is misfiring.

Then I realized what the problem was: cliches. Worn-out phrases. Tired old ways of saying things.

You know this territory. It’s the land where brows are always furrowed, shots always ring out, figures always loom, every faces is weather-beaten, straits are invariably dire, storms always brew, and tears are always something to fight back.

Technically there is a distinction between a “cliche” and a “hackneyed phrase,” but either way they’re words you know too well. Isn’t a writer’s job to create, to build something new where we usually see something old?

One indie author’s book that I sampled a couple of years ago was not only filled with cliches, but there was even a misspelled cliche — on the first page. (It’s “beck and call,” not “beckon call.”)

But what are we, mere readers, to do about the over-cliche-ization?

There is probably precious little … ouch! Another worn-out phrase! How about: “there are few options for us.” See how easy it is, when you’re writing on autopilot without really thinking about creative ways to express a thought, to resort to cliches and hackneyed phrases?

Yes, it takes more effort to find a new, different way to say “the applause was deafening” or “her heart melted,” but isn’t that the writer’s job?

The indie authors we select for interviews on The Bookcast are very good at their job.

Christopher Ryan is author of “City of Woe” and was the first recipient of The Bookcast’s “Book of Exceptional Quality” award. Ryan crafts memorable sentences like:

“Mallory frowned, brows meeting to confer at the bridge of his nose like old, insincere friends at an upscale bar.”

And in Ryan’s hands, even a description of an ordinary house becomes fascinating:

“The storm door, in the later rounds of a bout with the elements, had already taken a standing eight count…”

Is it possible to write an entire book without once using a cliche or worn-out phrase? Probably not. In some cases such usage actually provides a useful shorthand way of saying something without getting in the way of the narrative.
And to be frank, people who write and deliver broadcast news — like I do, in my “day job” — are equally guilty of resorting to the same tired old ways of describing things. A rescue from a burning house is always “dramatic,” any issue on which people disagree becomes “controversial,” and every “wind-whipped” wildfire is “devastating.”

So, let’s get our favorite authors to join us in the Slay the Cliche campaign.

What are some cliches and overused phrases you’d love to see go away, once and for all? Add them to the comments.

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4 Responses to Let’s Slay the Cliché

  1. September 21, 2014 at 11:33 am

    What a valuable (NOT “awesome”) editorial! Thanks.

    At the moment, my favorite cliche is “a rave review.” I’d also like authors who receive one to do something other than the “happy dance” while the review is “making their day.”

    Also, how can your “head be in the clouds” if your “boots are on the ground”?

    • September 21, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Gordon. And yes, there are even cliches the government relies on — “boots on the ground” seems to be the cliche-of-the-day.

  2. September 22, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    To slay or not to slay…

    I’ve slashed away at cliches and, on odd occasions, brought them back. When? In dialog. Sometime an old reliable — even boring — phrase is the right one for the character because that’s how people actually speak.

    Of course removing the cliches from the surrounding, descriptive text helps make the cliche-ridden dialog ring true.

  3. September 25, 2014 at 8:00 am

    I completely agree with Ms. Korman’s comment. Different voices speak differently, and it is the writer’s challenge to capture those differences.

    I came up with a response to the annoyingly pervasive, “I’ve got your back.”
    I say, “I thought I was missing something.”

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