How to Avoid Clichés
Enlist the anti-cliché.
Today’s topic is taking care of clichés.
Clichés can be a writer’s worst enemy, and the reader usually doesn’t like clichés much either. Writers from Jonathan Swift to George Orwell have ranted against the cliché like it was the Devil tempting an innocent seminary student (1).
Clichés are the metaphors and turns of phrase that have become tired through overuse (2). All walks of life is a cliché, along with behind the eight ball and cried over spilled milk. When these appear in copy, editors usually reach for a blue pencil or red pen and ask the writer to come up with something better.
The word cliché began as a nineteenth-century French term for a stereotype printing plate made from metal type. Books in high demand were printed from the plates until the plates wore out, just like a cliché is used until the energy of its first appearance is lost.
Where Clichés Come From
Writers never intend for a phrase they've composed to be used until it is hackneyed. The book of proverbs published by the English playwright John Heywood in the 1500s contains many sayings that were considered smart and original, only to have slouched into the twenty-first century as clichés. Some of his more memorable lines include better late than never and this hitteth the nail on the head.
Clichés happen through no fault of the original author and tend to be perpetuated by writers of lesser skill. You can admire the creator of every cloud has a silver lining, but coming up with something of your own will please readers more.
The Old Gets New and Old Again
Clichés can also be built on other clichés to become new but just as tiresome. Pass the buck is a nineteenth-century poker expression that crept into everyday speech. A knife with a buckhorn handle was used as a marker to show who was next to deal. If the player turned down the position, he passed the "buck" to the next player.
President Harry S. Truman turned the phrase and used the buck stops here to signal not that he was the next dealer, but that the decisions made by his administration were his responsibility alone.
He had a desk sign made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma in 1945 with the saying the buck stops here, and soon the phrase was popularized into meaninglessness. I'm From Missouri, which was on the reverse side, was fortunate to escape this fate.
Aged and on the Way Clichés
Many clichés are also terribly out of date. For example, lock, stock, and barrel first appeared in the letters of Sir Walter Scott in 1817, and refers to the pieces of a musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the stock is the wooden butt, and the barrel is the long piece from which the bullets come out. There is no reason to use this saying today except in period fiction.
The same goes for sell like hot cakes. It's not a reference to a hearty breakfast, but instead to early-American cornmeal cakes cooked in pork fat or bear grease and sold at fairs and church benefits.
Back in the day is a newcomer to clichés. It's only been around since 1997 (1)* and some claim that it's still fresh enough to be used. But the rule still applied: when everyone else is using a phrase or expression, make sure you don’t.
How to Handle Clichés
Clichés often appear in early drafts when you're trying to keep the writing going but you've run out of words to describe an action, event, or person. That's fine, but it's a good reason to do successive drafts--no one gets it right the first time. Read through your article or story with the meanest critic’s eye. Do not be afraid to hurt your own feelings. Delete anything that might resemble a cliché and replace it with words of your own.
Several online sources are available for those who want to purge their writing of cliché monsters. Check the links in the reference section at the bottom of this transcript.
Striking Back at Clichés
One way to strike against the trite and the tedious is by using the anti-cliché.
A really dumb cliché like what goes around comes around deserves to be mistreated. The anti-cliché is a cliché that is twisted into a different shape, but is still recognizable. For example, you could take what goes around comes around and change what comes around to probably should, to make what goes around probably should. The meaning is significantly changed, but it is better to be thought of as cantankerous than as a bad writer.
Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart (3).”
Now that you understand clichés, remember--the quick and dirty tip is get rid of them.
3. Amis, Martin. The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971 - 2000. NY: Hyperion, 2001.
* Although our source placed the first use of "back in the day" in 1997, shortly after releasing this episode we found multiple references that placed the first use much earlier--the phrase probably originated in the early 1980s.