Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Avoid Clichés: Get Past the Mundane Use Your Brain!

by Stacy Tritt

Her face fell. Fear gripped her. She was all bent out of shape.

Clichés are everywhere. They infect our writing, and make what we thought was a fantastic, captivating piece of work… well, boring to our readers. So how can we fight the pandemic of clichés? There are several approaches to this battle. First we must know how to identify clichés. Next, we must learn to guard ourselves against them. And last, we can use the basic idea of a cliché against itself in order to eradicate it. Here’s how:

Many of you may be wondering, how can I tell whether something is a cliché? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to find out:

1. Have you read those words or actions in the same context you are writing them in before? If your answer is yes, then the phrase is either cliché—or you’re plagiarizing. Either way, you want to avoid it.

2. Can the words you’re writing be considered a common figure of speech? For instance, in “her face fell,” did her face really fall, as in trip, tumble, or slide off of her head? Of course not! That would mean something entirely different. It’s a figure of speech, one that the majority of English speakers know, and is therefore considered a writing cliché. A good technique to get rid of clichés from your writing is to go back and read your work aloud so you can better recognize whether or not you have heard a specific phrase before.

So, you’ve found the clichés in what you’ve already written, and you’re ready to move on, but you want to break the habit of naturally writing clichés into your work. But how? Second guess yourself. If the words flow from your fingers like you didn’t even have to think about them, then chances are you didn’t, because you already know the words you’re writing, because they are cliché. Clichés are often the result of writing the way we speak in everyday life. The problem with this is that people don’t want to be told things they already know, they want to read what you have to say because it is exciting, and lets them see the world (whether this one, or a world you created) in a fresh, new way in which they’ve never seen something before. The hard part is giving them that fresh new take on the world.

One great technique to eradicate clichés is to use them—but not as they are. Take the cliché that is giving you problems, and change it to make it surprising and different; something the reader can’t see coming. Something that makes it your own. Here are a few examples:

“Her face fell” could become “His words shoved the smile right off of her cheeks.”

“Fear was gripping her” could become “Fear embraced her like a small child who refused to let go.”

And “She was getting all bent out of shape” could become “Her rage peaked at a new high, forcing all other emotion from her body and bending her once soft demeanor into a callous giant.”

Actions and reactions can also be cliché. Something scary happens when the storm begins, or a fight between lovers ends with a huge, sappy kiss. In those cases, do you really want your reader to know what will happen before they experience it on your page? I don’t think so. What is the point of reading? Throw in a few twists, lead them down one road, then force them to take another. Get past the mundane, and use your brain! As Nathanial Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” You just have to have to keep trying until you get it right.

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