Janet Sumner Johnson
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Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them

Jan 21, 2011 Uncategorized 17 comments

So now we know what clichés are. We can recognize them in their various forms. We also know that we shouldn’t use them.

But why? If they say exactly what we want to say, why not use them?

Here is what I came up with:

1. Clichés are boring.

By definition, clichés are overused. We’ve seen them before (WAY too many times). And frankly, we, as readers, are just plain tired of reading them. This applies especially to plot clichés (see part 2). After the first time, you can only take so many mistreated orphans who suddenly discover they have magical abilities, and thus thwart their evil relatives. And if you need a laugh and aren’t sure what other plot clichés might exist, check out this site.

Furthermore, when a character’s heart is pounding all the time (another of my weaknesses), you start to wonder if they’re going to have a heart attack.

2. Clichés suggest laziness.

I have done the stare-at-the-computer-trying-to-come-up-with-the-perfect-description thing. It stinks. A lot. It’s so much easier to use a pre-fabbed phrase that really does say what you want. But it’s never as effective. Likely it’s not even your voice. Really, it’s just lazy. (Note: I TOTALLY allow myself to use clichés on a first draft . . . just don’t let them stay. . . unless they should.)

3. Clichés can be a red flag for that agent or editor you’re hoping to impress.

Okay, I’m no agent or editor, but if I saw as many projects as they do on a daily basis, I might just be looking for a  reason to reject a few. You know, those pesky typos, queries addressed to Mr. instead of Ms., an abundance of clichés in the writing . . . You read enough, and I bet those clichés stand out like sore thumbs. 😉

4. Clichés are often word padding.

Sometimes, we’re trying to dress up our writing and unawares, those clichés sneak in. They add to our wordiness without adding to the meaning.

For example: Michael improved by leaps and bounds.

Do we really need it? No. Michael improved. Period.

5. Clichés don’t always mean what you think they mean.

This is particularly in reference to those proverb and idiom clichés (see part 2). These phrases are so common, and such a part of our culture, we don’t stop to question the meaning (which may not be the same for everyone).

In the Cliché Dictionary (Ammer, Christine, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001.), the phrase “eat one’s heart out” is defined as “worrying excessively.” Another definition that she cites almost as an afterthought is “doesn’t that make you jealous.” Uh, what? I had never heard that first definition. I’ve always seen it as the second. Maybe I’ve been misunderstanding people for years!

And I had to have a friend explain “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” That never made sense to me. Because if you have your cake, why can’t you eat it? It’s there for the taking right? (Definitely a duh moment.)

The point is, the definitions attached to these things aren’t necessarily the same for everyone. You may think you are expressing your ideas perfectly, while your reader is all kinds of confused.

Again, I don’t think all clichés should be banned. But consider these reasons for cutting them from your writing. Are they really pulling their weight? Are they doing what you intend for them to do? Are they improving your work or making it boring? Is the meaning clear?

In Part 4, I’ll talk about when cliche’s work, and how you can fix them when they don’t. And if you missed the first 2 parts, feel free to follow the links:

Conquering Clichés, Part 1: Introduction
Conquering Clichés, Part 2: Ways to be Cliché
Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them
Conquering Clichés, Part 4: Using Them . . . or Not

17 comments , , ,

17 Responses to “Conquering Clichés, Part 3: Why We are Cautioned Against Them”

  1. you are invited to follow my blog

  2. Perfect timing. I had already linked the first two parts of the series to my post today. I rushed to get this one in before anyone saw my post. 😀

  3. Beth says:

    This is a great list, and you made my day with the Evil Overlord instructions. Funny!

  4. This is EXCELLENT! I am always amazed by how easily I can fall into them in my writing!
    So now I use the first draft rule too–sometimes you just have to fly through! THANKS for these!

  5. Joanne says:

    When I think cliche, I always think of phrases, or sayings. I'd never really considered "plot" cliches, but wow, they're out there, aren't they. Sometimes I'll read a review, or bookjacket, and think that the story's been done so many times already … Another form of cliche!

  6. Love this series. And it's so easy to use certain words when you don't know exactly what they mean.

  7. Melissa says:

    I freaking love this series!!! I hope I don't have too many cliches!!

  8. Cliches and I have a love/hate relationship. Mostly hate. *sigh* 🙂

  9. ha, the cake one always bugged the hell out of me

    anytime someone says that I assumed they spent most of the 90's watching Rikki Lake

  10. Great list.

    I'll have to go back and read the other entries in the series!

  11. Oh, my! I must work on this. Do you think I could do a rewrite on virtually EVERYTHING I've ever written? Oh, vay!

    ~ Yaya

  12. Nicely done! Really great post, Janet! I think the toughest thing is trying to come up with something new–but that's why we're writers, right? Because that's what we DO! We write and we create. No sense borrowing tired old phrases!

  13. Ugh, cliches! Am on a hunt and kill mission at the moment. Think I might start dreaming in cliches soon 😉

    Rach

  14. Thanks for doing this. I found these cliche posts helpful. Have a great weekend.

  15. I also allow chiches in the first draft, but then weed them out. Like you said, some of them are such a part of our language and culture, I don't even realize they're cliches!

  16. Great series. Its amazing how easy cliches appear in a MS. I just found two this weekend as I was filling out a particular section.

  17. My first drafts are riddled with cliches. It's so much fun weeding them out and creating new ways to say things. Great post series. I quickly read one and two since I've been a bad blogger this week. I can't wait for part four!

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