Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Avoid Clichés in Writing

Out of all the editing advice I give, avoiding and replacing clichés is one of the tiniest edits—but it can have major repercussions for your story. These little buggers are easy to remove, but they’re often difficult to spot and hard to fix.

What is a Cliché?
When I talk about clichés, many of you might think of those colloquialisms that we often use. Here’s a great site that has hundreds of these cliché phrases.

However, in writing, a cliché is not limited to these phrases. And clichés are not just those words and phrases that are hokey. A cliché can be any word or phrase that is overused. Below I’ve included some examples of overused words and phrases that are considered cliché in the writing world. These lists are far from exhaustive.

Here are some common words that are clichés in writing:

  • Gasped
  • Looked
  • Turned
  • Suddenly
  • Sighed

Here are some common cliché phrases in fiction writing:

  • Jumped out of bed
  • Tears streaming down [his/her] face
  • Good versus evil
  • A battle of life and death
  • [S/he] rolled [his/her] eyes

Why it’s Problematic to Use Clichés in Writing
What’s so crippling about clichés is not that they sound hokey—though you do want to avoid that—but that using them stunts your own creativity and the depth you can add to your world through original descriptions.

For instance, were tears really streaming down your character’s face, or did a few unbidden tears trickle down her skin? Better yet, would your character really be crying, or would she be fisting her hands until her knuckles were pale? Perhaps she’d bite the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood—but she wouldn’t cry. Or perhaps in that moment she’d be hyperaware of her surroundings.

By avoiding clichés, our language’s low-hanging fruit, you can really get to know your world, your characters’ personalities, and the lens through which they see the world.

Some of the best writers find original ways to describe an everyday event. However, a word of warning: many beginning writers will try this and get a bit overzealous in the process. The difference is always in the wording. Amateurs judge their descriptions by the words they use, while masters of the craft judge how accurately and realistically a scene is portrayed—words are merely the tools used to achieve this end.

Identifying and Deciding Whether to Fix a Cliché
I think the trouble writers run into when it comes to clichés is that clichés are some of the hardest aspects of our language to identify, and they are even harder to change. After all, how do you spot something that is so deeply ingrained into the way we culturally perceive and describe the world?

You can start by going to the most important scenes in your book. Read the scene and be highly critical of your characters’ thoughts, descriptions, and actions. If anything sounds too generic, too much like descriptions you’ve read in other books, try changing it. Make sure that you actually think about your character and try to understand him or her. That character might be an extension of yourself, but he or she has a distinct personality.

Once you feel you have a good idea of that character’s personality, apply that personality to the scene—you might find that you’re rewriting more than a single description.

You can apply this exercise as many times as you’d like. What you’ll find is that you know your characters better than you previously did, and you’ll have an improved writing style. Fixing clichés will also help tremendously in other aspects of your novel, such as clarifying character motivations—why characters are doing what they are doing—generating momentum, and creating a more realistic world.

Lastly, let me clarify that using these clichés is okay. The hokier ones I’d definitely suggest changing, but what is a book without a gasp, sigh, or an eye roll? And it’s impossible to remove words like looked, turned, and suddenly without making the text more awkward. So what I am suggesting is not completely eradicating these clichés, but parceling them down, so that you use these terms when you need to, and not as a crutch.

Happy editing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services

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