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Avoiding Clichés Like the Plague


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Like many people, I went to school. For literally years. Sometimes it was awesome (days when I wasn't pantsed or threatened by that big douchebag of a bully), sometimes it wasn't (pantsed!). But through it all, there was a constant: I took writing classes. The very first year I could, I made sure to pick up creative writing electives, to work toward my ultimate goal of being one of the biggest dorks on the planet.

Looking back, I suppose the pantsing shouldn't have come as such a shock.

But anyway, back to my story:

I took a lot of different creative writing classes from a lot of different teachers. They all had different theories of the best ways to tell a story, the best way to introduce character, the weirdest clothes to wear.*

But one thing they all shared, one thing they uniformly agreed on was this: clichés are bad.**

And a lot of teachers still believe that. A random search for "writing advice on clichés" on the 'net turns up such gems as:

"10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing"
"Avoiding Clichés in Writing"
A University of North Carolina handout discussing why you should avoid clichés.
"Tips to Avoid Clichés and Weak Writing"

And these are not buried in loads of other writing advice pieces, these are the top search returns! With more -- many more -- to follow.

Upshot: cliché bad. Finding other words good.***

But here's the upshot to the upshot: these people have no froikin' clue what they're talking about, or what they should be talking about.

The fact is that clichés are actually very useful when used properly. A cliché, when used properly, is simply this: the fastest, clearest way to communicate an idea.

Clichés are clichés because they have entered the public vocabulary -- no, not just entered it, they've saturated it. You say "raining cats and dogs" or "the cloud had a silver lining" or "nose hairs like a hipster who's lost his Philips Unwanted Hair Remover," everyone knows instantly what you are talking about.**** And not only that, but they know it faster than they could -- that is, in fewer words -- without using the cliché.

"The silver lining was that, now that he'd been fired, Reggie could finally call his boss what he really was: the enema in the rectal exam of life."

Isn't that faster -- and better -- than:

"The upside which was better than the downside of the situation, or at least made the bad situation slightly better was, now that he'd been fired (etc.)."

Answer: yes. It is. Cliché didn't weaken this sentence or this concept, it strengthened it. And note, the second sentence is an unwieldy pile of goo that your professor (yes, the same one who told you to write sentences like this in the guise of "avoiding cliché") would probably give a failing grade to.

Now, there is a problem attendant to clichés: they have the tendency to be used thoughtlessly.

In other words, they become a substitute for thought on the part of the author. "Easy" often translates to "I can do this part on autopilot" -- much the same way I change my one-year-old's diaper. And I am really good at changing that diaper, but no matter how quickly or efficiently I perform that task, I inevitably end up with a bunch of crap at the end of the day.

I also end up with a clean little baby, but that doesn't fit my metaphor, so let's forget that part.

Cliché, in other words, is susceptible to misuse when not used intentionally and thoughtfully. But that's the trap waiting for someone who uses any words at all. A good writer should be aware not just of an overall story or concept, but each individual word choice. A good writer should never simply type-vomit whatever drivel comes to mind -- be that a cliché or a passage or a single word. Writers should be expert craftspeople, in control of every microscopic bit of their work.

Clichés are not the enemy. Laziness of thought is.

And I know that as sure as shootin'.


* Seriously. People involved in the writing life have a disturbing tendency to dress with all the fashion sense of a colorblind hobo who just went dumpster diving behind Lady Gaga's house. And yes, I am including myself in that group.
** They also thought that writing was sexy and would actually attract girls/boys in and of itself. I can't go into how wrong that is for most people, because there aren't enough ones and zeros on the internet to capture that sentiment. Though I did end up with a smart, nice, hot wife. So SUCK IT GIRL WHO WOULDN'T DATE ME IN HIGH SCHOOL. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!
*** Yes, I'm really a writer, no matter how much "writer" looks like "caveman scratching mad scrawls with a thick black Crayola."
**** Maybe that last one hasn't really "hit it." Yet. But it will. Oh yes. It. Will.

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Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling novelist and screenwriter. You can find him on Facebook at facebook.com/MichaelbrentCollings, on Twitter @mbcollings, or you can sign up for his mailing list here.