Thursday, January 20, 2011

5 Tips to Avoid Writing Clichés

How often have you heard the following expressions?

  • As strong as an ox
  • Stood out like a sore thumb
  • Back against the wall
  • Avoid it like the plague
  • As cold as ice
  • Flat as a pancake
Probably too many times to even bother trying to count. Why am I listing commonly-heard phrases? Because they are also commonly-read phrases. 

How can you avoid bogging down your stories with worn and battered clichés?

1. Recognize them. Sometimes they make sense, especially if you have an old-fashioned character and the sayings are included in her dialogue. But often they are unnecessary, a kind of mental crutch for the author who wants to add a bit of imagery or convey something complicated with a few, familiar words.

2. Devise original similes and metaphors. Instead of making your character "stand out like a sore thumb" at the heavy metals convention when she dressed for heavy metal, have her stand out "like a boiled onion in a bowl of strawberries".

3. Invent idioms and slang specific to your world as part of your worldbuilding. Is your money called "money", or is it flash, blink, creds, paper or jingle? If you're writing sci fi, fantasy or alternate history, what's your world's equivalent of "kicking the bucket"? Readers can pick up a surprising number of new expressions when they're used in context.

4. Twist the clichés. Instead of "sick as a dog", is your character as sick as a dog that swallowed a beached whale? As sick as a donkey that ate a cyanide carrot?

5. Use language with which you are comfortable. Don't snap a synapse trying to come up with original phrasing, or become so wrapped up in the language that you lose the flow and purpose of the story. The story and the characters is the meal. Linguistic flare is plating, garnish and accompanying beverage. It's delightful, but you probably couldn't live on it.


  1. I love this, Hillary, and I'm 100% behind a few new expressions in fantasy worlds, especially when you can tie them to the culture. I have a country obsessed with expansion, and when they mess up something, the characters from this region say they "shrinked it". Well, the commoners do. These little details will make your setting (or your voice) stand out.

  2. That Heavy Metals thing happens to me all the time...

  3. Exactly, Claudie. :)

    I know, Kristoff. It's startling, and disappointing, how many Heavy Metals conventions are around.

  4. This is one of my key rules to writing. Take what's expected, and change it up. It's an excellent tool.

  5. Thanks for posting this! I try to avoid cliches like the plague. Ooops. Just used one. :)

  6. Exactly, Elena. When I have time to put some thought into it, I'll post on avoiding the unexpected on a larger scale.

    It's amazing, Sara, how easy it is to fall into it. Some saying are so deeply engrained in common language that it's like pulling teeth getting around them. Oops...