Writing is Design: Avoid Writing Clichés for Better Prose
Since time immemorial, clichés have sneaked in the door when we least expect them to. They’re low-hanging fruit for writers who abscond with them quickly instead of striving for excellence. But to the trained eye, writing clichés stick out like a sore thumb. Authors of this day and age who struggle under the yoke of undetected style errors are too numerous to mention. The good writer puts his nose to the grindstone and embarks on a quest to find hidden treasure. With the patience of Job, he leaves no stone unturned in his search for words and phrases that give his writing a personal, authentic voice.
Writers from all walks of life are determined to publish by hook or by crook. Champing at the bit to publish his book, the writer gets behind the eight ball and pours himself lock, stock, and barrel into the task of writing. Cool as a cucumber and lost in contemplation, the ambitious author taps away at the keyboard day in and day out until the crack of dawn, happy as a kid in a candy store. As his manuscript grows by leaps and bounds, he envisions a whirlwind bookstore tour and expects his book to sell like hotcakes. Sure of success, he pulls out all the stops and pours everything but the kitchen sink into his writing. And he’s proud to have sufficient skill as a writer to avoid paying through the nose for an expensive editor. Publishing, he is certain, will open the floodgates to a world of opportunity where there’s never a dull moment. He envisions untold wealth, living larger than life in the lap of luxury, and laughing all the way to the bank.
But this flurry of activity is actually the calm before the storm. The pie-in-the-sky dream is too good to be true. Such writers are accidents waiting to happen. In this dog-eat-dog world, such books are usually dead in the water, and at best they’re a flash in the pan. Give the devil his due; the writing is on the wall for this author. His own worst enemy, he fails to realize that his chances are one in a million. Little the wiser, he jumps the gun and publishes before you can say “Jack Robinson.” At the end of the day, how many of his words fall on deaf ears? He falls hook, line, and sinker for the fantasy of becoming a bestselling author. Then, to add insult to injury, he hangs on to the bitter end, enjoying at best only a checkered career before his book is buried beneath the sands of time and forgotten by the long march of history. For all intents and purposes, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s dead as a doornail.
It goes without saying that the winds of change have brought higher standards to the fast-maturing world of self-publishing. Self-publishers are all in the same boat. To tame the wild horse of the publishing world, we must all pay the piper and nip bad writing habits in the bud.
Clichés are only one problem among many that writers should avoid like the plague. Each and every one of us must take the tiger by his tail and think outside the box. New words and phrases are easy to find or create for those willing to take the journey. The challenge to find clever words is hardly a search for a needle in a haystack. Why use clichés over and over when there are plenty of fish in the sea? Why live the writer’s life on borrowed time? After all, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Make no bones about it; writers who count their chickens before they’re hatched will soon find them coming home to roost. The ball’s in your court. Take the bull by the horns, bite the bullet, go back to the drawing board, and add some clever new phrases to your bag of writing tricks. Open up that can of worms in your writing before you publish and share them. The acid test for good writing is authenticity. Well-constructed prose is a breath of fresh air, not a rehash of the same old same old. Learn the ropes. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Knuckle down and honor the craft of writing.
All things considered, it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to rid your writing of clichés entirely, but in a nutshell, it stands to reason that in the cold light of day, weak writing habits will all come out in the wash. Publishing without paying your dues is like banging your head against a brick wall. Instead of shooting yourself in the foot, take the high road. The path to excellence is as plain as the nose on your face. Play your cards right, face the music, strike while the iron’s hot, and turn over a new leaf.
You’ll find no hard and fast rules about what’s cliché and what’s not, but by the same token, writers who exercise discerning judgment about their wordcraft are head and shoulders above the rest. Practice makes perfect. Put your best foot forward and work slowly but surely until your writing becomes as steady as a rock. For all intents and purposes, your prose need not meet the lofty standards of the average ivory tower stick in the mud, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, polished writing is a rare beast indeed and not anything to be sneezed at.
Without a shadow of a doubt, too many authors make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Gluttons for punishment, they dismiss previous, failed efforts as water under the bridge and part of the learning curve, then forge ahead. Come hell or high water, they’re determined to earn the glowing tributes, thunderous applause, and choruses of approval that only a chosen few are blessed to receive once in a blue moon.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Publishing is a game of survival of the fittest. Ignorance is bliss. Mark my words, the time has come to stop muddying the waters of short, sweet, and to the point writing with the cast-off jetsam and flotsam of language. The unvarnished truth: writers who fail to heed this warning will get their just desserts. Proof of the pudding is that left high and dry, and subject to twenty-twenty hindsight, they cry “sour grapes” at the moment of truth, and tuck their tails between their legs. With ruffled feathers, they throw in the towel and meet the untimely end of their literary lives.
As luck would have it, capable writers are not expected to be able to quote the thesaurus chapter and verse. Becoming a capable writer does not involve reinventing the wheel. As a matter of fact, there’s no need to make a mountain out of a mole hill; becoming cliché-aware requires no painstaking investigation. There’s no need to search your writing high and low—and ultimately, whether a phrase is “officially” cliché or not is anybody’s guess. Cultivating an ability to recognize clichés is nothing to write home about. Not to put too fine a point on it, writers who seek out and expose themselves to one of the many online lists of clichés will, after due consideration, naturally incorporate their new-found awareness into their writing.
First and foremost, those writers who ultimately hit the nail on the head are the ones who recognize that battling style errors is part of the long haul every one of us must make. The completion of a rough draft is a mixed blessing. The savvy author must put his money where his mouth is, stick to the straight and narrow, pay his dues, and turn his diamond in the rough into a polished gem. Writers worth their salt know that the first draft is only the tip of the iceberg.
Great writing requires tender loving care and when the work is done, the polished writer may yet wind up an unsung hero. Excellent writing won’t necessarily make or break a book and regrettably, some authors grow sick and tired enough to give up, get some well-earned rest, and publish, warts and all. But make no mistake, you get what you pay for. Your excellent book may not make you rich but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be a sight for sore eyes in a world where quality and attention to detail are sorely needed. If you don’t care, who will?
Last but not least, just for the record, this essay is hardly short and sweet but there’s a tongue-in-cheek method to my madness. As strange as it may seem, I sincerely hope that readers who take my words with a grain of salt will see them as a blessing in disguise.
Steven Bauer: I know it would spoil the whole point of your essay, but writers do need to have it pointed out that clichés were once vibrant metaphors, exuberant inventions, that have lost their meaning through overuse; now they no longer surprise, or give us any mental picture at all. They’re to language what Muzak is to music. In most of the clichés you use, the metaphor’s vehicle has become obscure or no longer understood. We no longer see the axehead in “fly off the handle” or the nautical rope in “to the bitter end.” And people are able, without batting an eye, to write things like “It’s a doggy dog world” and “I better toe the line.”
See Part 1 of Writing is Design: Avoid Bland Pronouns and Boring Verbs
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