No more heaving bosoms: How to avoid clichés in your writing4 min read

by Aug 4, 2017Writing0 comments

My first piece of advice about clichés: don’t avoid them.  Clichés are like shortcuts, and when you’re trying to write 100,000 words of your opus then a little bit of corner cutting isn’t a bad thing.

I often use clichés when I’m rushing to finish a draft and I don’t have time to worry about perfect phrasing.  I just have to get plot to page, plot to page (it’s like a mantra).  It’s a messy process but everyone hates their first draft.  So is it really so bad if you use a cliché rather than wasting an hour of precious writing time debating the use of a couple of words?

All you need to do is ensure you’re aware of your cliché usage.  Highlight words and phrases as you write, that way you shouldn’t miss anything when you edit.  (But if it makes you stressed to see that much highlighted text building up, then comb the chapters as your first rewrite task and highlight then.)

Once you’ve finished your first draft you can take the time to fix your wording.  The Oxford Dictionary online has a great blog piece on actions to take when you spot a cliché in your writing.

Firstly, is your cliché just filler?  Did you write “Julius arrived in the nick of time” when “Julius arrived” would have done?  Can you just remove it without changing the meaning of the sentence?

Then there are clichés you use purely for emphasis.  “She was filthy rich, but she had a snowball’s chance in hell of taking down the don.”  Oxford Dictionary online presses you to think about what the cliché actually means.  What are the key words and meanings?  Brainstorm that and you can work out better, potentially more accurate, phrasing.  (Until you get to cliché “he was as sick as a parrot” and you have no idea where that phrase came from or how it came to be a cliché.  Is it because some parrots are green?  Are green-faced people are oft known to vomit?  I don’t know, it’s all speculation here and it seems pretty tenuous.)

Now the above works for clichés in your text, but what about clichés more generally?  Even though you’ve fixed the heaving bosoms that incapacitate your leading lady whenever her girlfriend strides into the tavern, how do you avoid the clichés in wider stories and characters?

It’s tricky.  Take a look at romance novels.  If you boil all of them down far enough it will be the same formula.  X and Y meet.  X and Y fall in love.  An obstacle keeps X and Y apart.  X and Y smash the obstacle to bits with a jackhammer and make out heavily.  Done.  But look how many romance novels sell.  You carry on building fabulous characters and worlds, the readers will come.

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