Clichés can make a narrative sound tired and unimaginative. They bombard us everyday, so they leak easily from our fingertips, like ink from an old-fashioned pen. When I point out clichés to the authors I edit, they come up with some very inventive alternatives that enliven their prose.
Here’s a string of some of my most hated clichés. I’m sure every editor has such a list.
“Cindy’s eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and her knuckles whitened as she gripped the back of the chair after the good-looking blonde shot her a look and gave her a lop-sided grin, then rolled her eyes.”
I immediately highlight such phrases in yellow.
Not all clichés get this treatment. Some are okay in dialogue, if they’re appropriate to the character speaking.
For example, “My dad pretended to read him the riot act, but I think he was secretly proud of him. The other kid’s mother went ballistic.” Real people use clichés, so why shouldn’t characters?
Another example: “‘You know what they say.’ Gillian got up abruptly and pushed Isabel off the bed. ‘No time like the present. Strike while the iron is hot. Get your groove on. Okay, I’m all out of clichés, and I need a nap. Now go!’”
Showing that a character is aware of using tired phrases can inject them with new life.
Clichés are okay even in narrative, if you play with them. “I rolled my eyes so far up in my head they were in danger of getting stuck there.” This first-person narrator has a great sense of humor and does delightful things with clichés.
Repeated word and phrases are right up there with clichés. Most authors repeat words and phrases without realizing it. When I write a first draft, my eyes become magnets that pick up any nearby words and drop them into my text at will.
In clients’ manuscripts, I expect to see words such as “look” and “walk” fairly often, but not clustered in a paragraph or dotting a page like blackberries on a vine.
I counsel writers to use such words as “effervescent” only two or three times in a MS, because the reader will remember them. The innocuous words—the “looks” and “walks”—may appear up to fifty times, if they’re sprinkled unobtrusively throughout.
If an author repeats a word too often, I ask her to find suitable alternatives. One writer enlisted FM radio listeners in Sweden to help her think of synonyms for the word “soft.”
Of course, skillful writers can use repetition very effectively. Here’s an example from a political newsletter: “Presidents and politicians may be concerned about losing votes or losing face or losing legacies. We told the truth because we are more concerned about young Americans losing their lives.”
Clichés and repetition can clog and distract, or they can liberate and enlighten. It’s up to the writer to do the latter, and the style editor to encourage her to do so.
Shelley is a native Texan who writes, teaches, and edits--not necessarily in that order. Other than recently dodging hurricanes, she enjoys retirement and posts a poem weekly at myspace.com/editlit.