Revamp those Clichés
Gay Ingram

You’re writing along and in slips a phrase that explodes within your mental imagery. So just right, so comfortable, so recognizable. Beware: that catchy phrase may be an old familiar cliché and the use of a cliché can spell doom to your prose.

The Oxford American Dictionary defines clichés as a phrase or idea that has lost its original impact through long overuse. William Zinsser in his classic On Writing Well defines clichés as "dreary phrases that constitute journalese at its worst and writing at its most banal."

Clichés are known as such because they’ve been around since Adam and there’s an element of truth in them. Everyone recognizes a cliché when they read one. Coming upon "dumb as a doornail" or "cute as a button" in your writing, the reader slides right past the words, speeding the phrase’s image a quick exit out the brain’s back door. Clichés jerk the reader right out of the spell your words have woven and make them aware there’s a writer at work So here’s a good writing rule to work by: don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Most times when a writer depends on time-worn clichés, it’s an indication of lazy writing. Instead, reach for the nearest dictionary or thesaurus. (You do keep both handy nearby, don’t you?) Our English language is rich in strong, specific words. Care enough about your writing to come up with something fresh and original, something all your own. Give that cliché some serious thought. What’s the meaning behind the words? Come up with a new way of saying it.

If you’re the kind of writer who just has to get it all down on paper first, you can follow the example of some writers. Allow yourself to pen in the clichés in your first drafts, bookmark them in some way - possibly with a big asterisk - then go back later and replace it with a fresh phrase only you could come up with. Sometimes all it takes is a small twist like the one I used earlier when I changed "around since Methuselah" to "around since Adam."

One instance where using a cliché is valid is in the dialog of a character. Speech is determined by a person’s education, economic standing, environment or ethnic background. We all can remember certain phrases or words that were a natural part of someone’s way of speaking. At times clichés have become local colloquialisms and their use in dialog will define the character. John Gould’s The House That Jacob Built is rich in colloquialisms that have come to be clichés but define his Maine characters. Phrases such as "he was a piker" and "his time had come".

Descriptive behavior is another instance when a writer should use what’s known as clichés of tradition. These offer insights into human behavior most people recognize as accurate and truthful. The responsive actions of pets are often indicators of character. How your character’s dog reacts to a stranger at the door could convey to the reader something about the stranger. Does the dog snarl? Is the hair on the back of his neck standing up? Is his tail wagging? All are visual indications of your animal’s innate intuition of this stranger.

Giving your character a distinctive trait will help them resonate with the reader. Just be wary of those descriptive behaviors that become overused. Does your heroine always chew her lip when she’s nervous? Does it happen frequently? How about that aggressive character that keeps on shouldering his way into a situation? Is that distinctive behavior how he’s identified every time? Something used over and over bores the reader, causing him to lose interest.

Take Sol Stein’s advise from Stein on Writing - "learn to look closely at what you write, to test each word and phrase both of accuracy and necessity. Use the following checklist to take your writing to a more professional level.

  • Be selective with your words

  • Eliminate known attributes - don’t tell us the beach sand was white or that the ocean had waves

  • Tell the reader what he doesn’t already know

  • Find details that are significant

  • Make certain your details do useful work

  • Don’t have an inanimate object spring to life

  • Avoid subjective descriptions such as attractive, charming, romantic or quaint

We’ve all taken our share of twisted alleys and bustling thoroughfares; are there any other kind? Yes! Be a conscientious writer and say it in your own unique words.


Listen to what happens in your mind when you hear these clichés: meek as a lamb--dropped it like a hot potato--dumb as a doornail--sly as a fox--old as Methuselah--burning the candle at both ends--behind the eight ball--black as night--hit the nail on the head--out of the frying pan into the fire--no stone unturned--time heals everything--you can’t fight city hall–old as the hills–cold as ice–hot as hell.

These phrases evoke such familiar images that they’ve lost their capacity to fire the imagination. If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it again with suspicion. It will most likely be a cliché.

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About the Writer:

Gay Ingram has been writing for years and has managed to get several books and numerous articles published. To learn more about her and her accomplishments, go to