We are at the letter C in our series on “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing”
If you’ve read the previous posts on the subject, you’ll recall that the eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – are blogging on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.
This week, I’m going to talk about Clichés.
A cliché is a phrase that is symbolic or figurative rather than literal; for example: I am over the moon. Really? Clearly not, unless you are in a space ship, in which case it is a literal situation and therefore not a cliché.
A cliché can be an idiom, as in the example above; a metaphor [it was the final straw]; a simile [she sank like a stone]; or a proverb [knowledge is power].
At one time, eons ago, it was considered natty to use such phrases in speech and in writing. The concept was still new and they sounded clever. Unfortunately, precisely because they sounded so fine, lay people adopted them and they came into common usage – into over-usage, in fact – to the extent that they began to sound boring and trite.
Not surprisingly, the term cliché, in French, means to ‘stereotype’, while, in its current sense, it points to something that is ‘overdone’. A cliché, thus, is a phrase that was imaginative and relevant at one time, but not any more.
Why decry clichés in writing?
When an author’s work is rife with clichés, it gives the impression that the author is too lazy to come up with creative new ways of saying things. Redundant phrases make your writing appear less imaginative and less dramatic – when you rely on old relics that have been tried and tested to the point of becoming annoyingly mundane, your writing will not impress potential fans.
Readers want to hear your voice, not the voice of an author who existed decades or centuries ago. Not a good strategy, is it, if it drives away the readers?
What should you do when you are tempted by a cliché?
Learn to recognize the siren call of the cliché – that’s the first step – and turn a deaf ear to it.
Argh! Turn a deaf ear – see how they just pop up in our writing?
Clichés are very, very common – and I have a few personal favorites:
‘Can’t for the life of me remember’
‘a blot on the landscape’
‘don’t rock the boat’, and
I’d be bereft if I had to give them all up.
I don’t recommend giving up every last one of them – in any case, ‘when all is said and done’, ‘at the end of the day’ it is ‘more or less’ impossible to get rid of every cliché from your writing.
What you could do is reduce the numbers considerably. With every draft that you edit, kill a few of them.
Not sure if a certain phrase is a cliché?
Read it slowly – if it sounds generic, like something anybody could write; if it is not representative of your writing; if it sounds vague and non-specific – rewrite it so that it becomes reflective of you.
If you’re trying to replace a cliché, you may need only a few words to say the same thing in a fresh and original, more creative way. Of course, you can be verbose, too, like I have been in my third example (listed below), but that will depend on the type of fiction you are writing.
Let’s try with the sentence I wrote earlier:
Learn to recognize the siren call of a cliché and turn a deaf ear to it.
How would you rephrase the sentence without the cliché?
If I were to write it in my own words, I could say:
‘Learn to recognize the siren call of the cliché and pay no attention to it’
or ‘Learn to recognize the siren call…and resist it with all your might’
or ‘When you hear the siren call of the cliché, run in the opposite direction, remembering to take your notebook and pen with you so that you can continue with the writing once you reach a safe place’.
Having established why it’s best not to use clichés, I must add that they are an integral part of satires and spoofs. And they can very well be used in conversation if one of your characters likes using them in dialogue. Thus, ‘all is not lost’ for lovers of clichés!
As you replace clichés with phrases of your own, you may create a catchphrase so delicious that it gets copied by other writers – it may soon become a new cliché in it’s own right. Good luck with that!
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