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

Jan

21, 2011 |

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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

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