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Saturday, August 24, 2019

 

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague


 By Bobbie Christmas


As soon as we take writing seriously, we learn to avoid clichés. In my decades of editing book-length manuscripts for publishers and individuals, though, I see a vast difference. While the manuscripts that traditional publishers have purchased have few clichés, the books that unpublished but hopeful writers send me often are loaded with clichés. Maybe unpublished folks don’t understand that clichés go far beyond recognizable similes like the one in the title of this column: avoid (whatever) like the plague. For that reason I want to spend time addressing clichés today.

First, a cliché is anything—and I do mean anything—that you have ever seen written before. Just as many similes (quiet as a mouse, drink like a fish, run like the wind, etc.) are clichés, so too are many other things. Let’s start at the beginning. Literally.

We writers know the wisdom of starting a novel with an exciting scene filled with tension. Robust openings build excitement and make readers want to keep reading. If the scene turns out to be a dream, though, big mistake! Major cliché! Opening with a dream also makes readers feel duped, drawn into the story under false pretenses. Strong writing does not use dreams to fabricate excitement. Yes, later in a novel a dream sequence can reveal information about a character or a character’s situation or concerns, but readers should always know it’s a dream.

Another cliché opener that is the opposite of opening with an exciting dream is opening with a character waking in bed. I see it often in novice work. Not only is it overused, but it’s boring. Everyone wakes up at some time during the night or day, and waking up adds no pizazz to a story. If, however, a character finds himself waking up in a dumpster or in the hospital, that’s another story. Such an opening could be interesting indeed.

In weak writing I also see words that have been used together so often that they are cliché. Here are a few:

1. Bored stiff
2. Bird’s-eye view
3. Crystal clear
4. Few and far between

The list of words used together too often could extend into the hundreds, so let me move on to redundancies, because many clichés are also redundant. Examine the following:

1. She cried (or shook) uncontrollably. [Few of us can cry or shake controllably. Delete the adverb.]

2. He shrugged his shoulders. [What body part other than shoulders can we shrug? Delete “his shoulders.”]

3. She just stood (or sat) there and watched. [If someone doesn’t move, we don’t need the extra verbiage. Consider this recast: She just watched. Or She didn’t move.]

4. Thought to himself. [We can’t think to anyone else but ourselves. Delete “to himself” or “to herself,” as the case may be.]

5. She gently caressed the baby’s back. [Caresses are always gentle, so “gently” is redundant. Recast this way: She caressed the baby’s back.]

As you may note, most adverbs are redundant, which is one reason why strong writers avoid them. I tell writers to allow themselves to use adverbs in the first draft, though, because in the next draft those adverbs will often indicate adjacent verbs that need to be stronger. Once you strengthen the verb, you can delete the adverb. Examples include the following:

1. He ran quickly toward the door. Recast: He raced toward the door.

2. Suddenly she heard a loud noise. Recast: A loud noise startled her.

I could go on all day about clichés and redundancies, but “I could go on all day” is a cliché too, so I’ll end here. If you feel the urge, send me your favorite clichés to hate. I may use them as future examples.

Have a nice day. Whoops! Cliché!

***

Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie[at]zebraeditor.com or BZebra[at]aol.com.

Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at https://www.zebraeditor.com/blog/.

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