Monday, December 14, 2009

Tired or Fresh?

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 Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.


  1. My pet peeve: shrugging. I don't think I shrug once in an entire year, and I almost never see anyone else do it. If anything, it's the half-shrug, accompanied by a frown. But read a bad manuscript, and the shrug acts as an oft-used vocabulary in itself.

    Characters shouldn't shrug unless they're visiting the chiropractor--or are prepared to be called out on it by another character.

  2. Maybe not a cliche but a pet peeve: she had no choice but to ... I read this often in published books as well as manuscripts, and I always think, "There's always a choice!"

  3. My pet peeve is "to tell the truth". Would anyone seriously consider saying "to tell a lie"... ?

    Totally awesome post, Shelley!

    Going back to my room now,


  4. I don't think I use cliches, but I do use certain words too much. Words I have to go back and strip from my manuscript, like 'just' and 'that' - and, apparently, I like to say 'apparently' a lot. Don't know why, I just do.

  5. If I'm not very careful, my characters grin like crazy.

    When I'm writing a first draft, I seem to get a word stuck in my head. The chosen word shows up a lot. I have to be careful to catch them all in the edits.


  6. This was great. I'm eating it up like candy. ;-)

    Actually, I'm like you when I edit. Cliches usually stand out and if it's an unusual word or a word that I stumble over pronouncing it in my head, I'll keep a lookout for it as I read the manuscript. I keep a notepad handy to make note of words and page numbers.

  7. I use cliche a lot when I blog. I consider them conversations and I use them when I talk.

    I don't like to read them in book narrative. But as you say, it would make sense for a character to drop the occasional one.

    I really hate "eyes like pools..." which I guess is more of a simile but I think it's used so much it's become a cliche.

  8. My peeve is not used often in fiction, but crops up almost nightly in the news: "He lost his life."

    My goodness! How careless can you be? Has he checked the local police station? Perhaps someone handed it in.

    And I had to point out how insulting this phrase is when used in conjunction with a heroic act: "Three police officers lost their lives defending a group of children from a mass murderer." This usage insinuates that the police officers were responsible for their own deaths, and the mass murderer had very little to do with it.

    It's poor quality journalism.

  9. Since I'm a journalist, I have to really make an effort to be descriptive--I'm naturally a just the facts kind of writer.

    I might be using cliches like crazy, but after this. I'll begin to look out for them, thanks!!

  10. I've been annoyed lately by the use of the word "literally" by broadcast journalists. Most people can tell the difference between "in the doghouse," when talking about someone in trouble, and "in the doghouse" as a physical place to find a dog. Perhaps if commentators didn't used cliches, they wouldn't need to explain literal things.

  11. Lots of manuscripts I read are trying to avoid saying 'said' - so 'he expostulated' or 'she blustered'. But 'said' is one of those invisible words that generally doesn't draw attention to itself and doesn't need a synonym.

    As for me, I hate it every time I have to write 'he crossed the room', but there seems no alternative!

  12. I stripped out all the that's out of a manuscript, only to have an editor put them back. I use many too many times, and I'm not sure how to stop.

    Great post. Thanks.

  13. Great post and I particularly liked when you pointed out that a cliche can work when you put a twist on it. Not all that sure if I agree about letting a character use cliches in dialogue just because that is the way real people talk. I once had a writing instructor say that readers don't want to hear characters talk the way real people do. It's boring. Just a thought.

    On the other hand, the example you gave of the character using the cliches and then pointing out the usage works well because it is clever and not something a person would say in real life.


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