Few things kill your writing more quickly than overuse of clichés. Don’t know what I mean? Try this:
The woman’s hair was black as midnight. Her face was smooth as silk, but her fear had turned her white as a sheet, making her ruby-red lips stand out in stark contrast. Her eyes were as blue as a summer’s sky, and they pleaded with him not to dash her hopes. She’d tried to play it dumb, but now he could tell she was smart as a whip.
See how many clichés I used there? It was overdone, of course, but it gives you an idea of how much damage clichés can do to your writing. Inane topic aside, the above paragraph is flat, dull, and just plain boring. It tells the reader the writer didn't care enough to think up any original descriptions. That's not the message you want to send to your reader!
How to Identify a Cliché
Simple. If you’ve heard or seen the phrase before, it’s probably a cliché.
How to Rid Yourself of Clichés
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get rid of clichés. The reason they are clichés to begin with is that they describe things so darn well! The only antidotes to clichés are thoughtfulness and originality—neither one easy to develop if it doesn’t come naturally. The only way to develop those traits is to practice. Look at things from all angles. Use all your senses. Look at the world around you for new comparisons. For a start, you might try reading through a thesaurus for synonyms of some of the words in the cliché.
Here's an exercise: Rewrite the cliché, “Smart as a whip. " What did you come up with?
Getting rid of clichés isn't easy, but it will become easier as you practice—and your writing will show the results of your hard work.
When to Weed out Clichés
Don’t think that you now have to go and write a flawless first draft of your next piece, completely clear of clichés. If you try that, you’ll probably never get that first draft written. My advice, and the technique I use, is to write your first draft with whatever words come to mind, cliché or not. If possible, let the manuscript sit a while before going back to it. Then, with a fresh mindset, you can go through and weed out all the undesirables, taking the time to find descriptions that really say what you want them to say.
Clichés in Dialogue
Some might disagree with me on this, but I believe it’s all right to use clichés in dialogue. Make that limited clichés in dialogue. Why? Because people use clichés when they speak! Most people are lazy when they speak. Very few ordinary people take the time to develop new and interesting descriptions during the course of a conversation.
You could make clichés a character trait for one of your characters, by having them speak almost exclusively in clichés. (Careful, though; that could get old quickly!) On the flip side, if you have a character who is exceptionally bright, you probably want to avoid clichés and make that the character who does come up with original sayings.
How you use clichés in dialogue is up to you. The lesson to take away here, though, is, as in all things, moderation.
Now, knock ‘em out, tiger!
Andrea's writing background includes features, editorials, reviews, profiles, poetry and fiction. She was the winner of the MOTA short story contest in 2002 and received honorable mentions for fiction from Writer’s Journal magazine in 2002 and 2004. Check out her blog at http://creativewithwriting.blogspot.com