How Cliched Is Your Writing? Take the Test

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Corny-looking man on one knee proposing to woman

We’ve all heard the expression, “That’s so cliche!” But what does it really mean, and can it mean more than one thing?

A cliche can be described as:

So, cliches don’t just include phrases we hear too often, but also ideas and situations, and even characters.

DeepGenre makes an interesting observation in that:

One of the standard Words of Advice that writers–new and old–get, is to avoid clichés. The advice itself is rather a cliché but, like all clichés, it is based in truth, and it would be wrong to reflexively ignore it.

But what’s so wrong about using cliches? Sure, maybe they sound a little tired, but how bad could they possibly be?

Oxford Dictionaries puts it well:

[Cliches] tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought. Some people just tune out when they hear a cliché and so they may miss the point that you’re trying to make.

There’s the heart of the problem—no one wants to read something they’ve already read a thousand times. And, as a writers of integrity, none of us set out to look lazy.

As I mentioned before, the term ‘cliche’ can refer to a number of different things, but they all share the commonalities of being (a) overused, (b) meaningless, and (c) boring.

1. Overused expressions

Common sayings (or idioms) like “All’s fair in love and war” and “Blood is thicker than water” are cliched. They once held truth and meaning, but through overuse have become meaningless.

Other expressions you may find peppered through your writing include, “He was scared to death,” “It was my worst nightmare,” “She was as sick as a dog,” and “He sighed with relief.”

But even more insidious are the classification of expressions that are so commonplace, we don’t even notice them: “Needless to say,” “At this point in time,” “Each and every one,” “Off the top of my head,” “Mark my words,” and “I beg to differ.”

The list could go on and on (I think “on and on” might even be a cliche…), but you get the idea. These expressions are overused, meaningless, and boring.

[Check out this list of 500 Cliches to Avoid in your Creative Writing, and An A to Z of Cliches for Writers to Avoid Like the Plague.]

2. Hackneyed plots

We’ve probably all heard that there are only so many original plots in existence, and that every book in existence is simply a variation of one of those plots. That’s completely true. But, some plots have become so hackneyed, readers begin to think, “Ugh. Not again.”

How to Avoid Plot Cliches gives the example of the character who knows some terrible secret, but dies or falls into a coma before he or she can pass the secret on to the main character.

Or, how about this one: young city girl loses/quits her job and moves to small town which she hates at first, but soon comes to love for its quirky inhabitants and one very special male character.

No one’s saying you can’t make these overused plots fresh—in fact, writers do it every day and still manage to get published. But, if the plot or premise is hackneyed, the writer must do something else to make the story stand out. Maybe the characters or the setting are what sets it apart from the rest.

[Just for a laugh, check out this cool cliched plot generator.]

3. Stereotypical characters

In my opinion, the best books are those that feature characters who remain in my memory long after I’ve finished reading. That’s why it’s especially frustrating when I come across completely one-dimensional, stereotypical characters that ruin an otherwise okay story.

Within my reading experience, I’ve come across characters like these:

  • a male love-interest who was fat in high school, but who turns out to be beefy and handsome when the leading lady meets him again as an adult
  • a young professional woman who can’t seem to find love amongst all the frogs
  • a handsome, brooding man whose wife died, and now he just can’t allow himself to admit his feelings for the new lady in his life

These are stereotypes. We’ve seen these characters again and again.

Again, that’s not to say you couldn’t take one of these characters and make them outstanding, while setting them within a not-so-hackneyed plot. It’s just more difficult to pull off.

[Helen Fielding managed to do it with the much-loved Bridget of Bridget Jones's Diary.]

The Cliched Writing Self-Test

Okay—moment of truth. (Another cliche, right?)

Print out one chapter or section of your work-in-progress, and work through it with a highlighter.

Each time you come across…

  • a phrase you hear commonly used
  • a too-obvious descriptive word (like describing the sun as ‘glaring’)
  • a situation that seems unoriginal
  • a character you’ve seen before, or one who behaves in a stereotypical manner

…highlight it.

Worse than you thought? Better?

You’ve probably found at least a few instances of cliched writing which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. If not, try digging out a piece from your earlier writing days. See a difference?

Now, before you go throwing out your novel or short story because you think your writing is hopeless, check out Oxford Dictionaries Action Points for Avoiding Cliches. There are some great practical ways to rid your prose of these impediments to excellent writing.

The odd cliche isn’t going to kill your work-in-progress. Sometimes they can be used to your advantage, but in general there are better ways to get your point across.

How cliched is your writing? Do you have a strategy for preventing or identifying cliches in your works-in-progress? Which cliched phrases, ideas, or characters do you find popping up in your work again and again?

 

{ 24 comments }

Ashley Prince June 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm

I love this post, Suzannah. It is kind of sad how often I find myself using cliches, but there are times when what I’m writing just calls for it. 

And as for stereotypical characters, I find that I like them more if the journey itself is unique. But one that is driving me absolutely crazy every time I pick up a teen paranormal fiction book, is the cliched vulnerable, insecure girl who falls in love with a guy who treats her terribly because he’s trying to save her and ends up being a vampire or a fallen angel. 

Enough with my rant though. Thank you for a wonderful post!

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:21 pm

Yes, that would get annoying with the YA fiction! Don’t read much of it myself—hated Twilight and refused to read the rest of the series :)

Elle B June 21, 2011 at 5:53 am

Great roundup, Suzannah. I’ve been finding glaring cliches — oops, there I go again :) — in my work recently but I’m happy that I’m noticing them now.

I think the only antidote is rewriting and rewriting. I find reading the draft out loud helps also, because cliches sound more obvious when verbalized.

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:22 pm

You know what they say: writing is rewriting. So true!

JJ Toner June 21, 2011 at 11:37 am

Good post, Suzannah.

Of course, it almost goes without saying, that the cliche landscape is not constant. It changes all the time. My mental store of cliches is probably old-fashioned, and I often write stuff that readers tell me is cliched nowadays, without realizing what I’ve done. As far as plots are concerned, I refuse to be limited by what other people regard as cliche. If I paid heed to that sort of thinking I would never write another word!  

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:23 pm

You’re right. To a certain degree, we can’t avoid all cliches all the time. They’re just too ingrained in our language. Interesting observation about cliches changing over time, but so obviously true!

Miss GOP June 21, 2011 at 11:48 am

I just blogged about this topic the other day (or at least the basics of cliches). I’m especially focusing on figures of speech this week and how they can easily turn into a cliche.

I’m so glad you mentioned stereotypical characters; as a writing teacher I see so much of that. Thanks!
-Miss GOP

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:24 pm

Cliched language is probably much easier to remedy than cliched characters, so I don’t doubt that you see them constantly within your students’ work!

Anne-Mhairi Simpson June 21, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I hate describing things the normal way so I often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it, which helps me to avoid cliches in descriptions. I also like the idea of turning cliches on their heads (tiny, cute girl is also bad-ass shapeshifter). I really wanted to work a passive aggressive werewolf into one of my stories and I think I might actually have done it, after giving up on the idea. Playing around with cliches can be great fun – they’re a good place to start, then you look at how you could turn them around to make something new and unexpected.

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Great tips! I’m sure these will come in handy for other readers.

James June 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm

A cliche I am tired of reading or hearing–It’s not rocket science.
I just write this cliche in my own words.
It’s basic or It’s not complicated or It’s simple
I suggest when you read or hear a cliche,
rewrite it in your own words.

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:26 pm

That’s good, simple advice, James. Thanks!

Anonymous June 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm

I agree cliché’s can be a nuisance.  I am a hopeless
critic of this; I always analyze and edit my work in progress to see if there
is any cliché’s -if so I oust them immediately.  I wish my over-analytical
brain would stop there but it also does the same with the films I watch, the
books I read and the artworks I view -maybe it’s a good thing to have an
automatic honing device for these! :)

Thank you for a lovely post!

James June 21, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Since you mention your analyze  films. Writers for movies and TV  are not creative. They write the same cliche plots, dialog and characters.  Please don’t use films for ideas or example. I am sure if you keep weeding out cliche, your writing will be original.

Anonymous June 22, 2011 at 11:55 am

James, thank you for your response; I did not mention the
analyzing of film as an example of clichés found in writing -I was just stating
a fact; I  tend to analyze in general and
always try to pick apart anything I watch, read etc…  So, in effect I
was trying to emphasize how my brain functioned when it came to clichés (in
everyday life). 

I am fully aware TV and Films have a different structure and
tend to market to the vast audiences needs; however, it would be good to note
that there are some original films out there that try to abandon clichés -be it
in their writing of the script or the actual filming process/method of the
subject matters; Memento would be a good example.

Suzannah June 23, 2011 at 11:27 pm

You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by. 

Cher Green June 26, 2011 at 4:33 am

Suzanne,

Great post. Thanks for all the links. I try to avoid cliches, but they normally show up in my drafts and I have to squash them during rewrites.

Cher

Krissy Brady June 29, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Thanks for the thorough post!  I try my absolute best to avoid cliches, but they are so commonplace in every day conversation, that when you’re writing (get ready for it), sometimes cliches slip through the cracks (see?!).  I make a point, when writing dialogue and descriptions, to be as original as possible. I appreciate this list–will be going through my chapters while editing and ensure that I maintain this goal.

Fading-dream July 8, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Great advice and I love how you make a point to show that cliches can be used for the good as well. Except comas, those are NEVER a good idea. One point I have to say, though, is don’t try too hard to avoid cliches. When you do, your story just ends up alienating the reader and causing the reader to think the writer has lost it. I’ll sum it up: Avoid them if you can but twist them if you can’t.

Rachel Law July 21, 2011 at 12:06 am

Wow, WONDERFUL post!  I’m looking forward to studying all of the links you offered and “getting my [inserting arbitrary object]… writing into gear”  :)

Mroachsmith July 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Cliches make great place holders, however, as you work through your vomit draft. Never underestimate the power of moving on in a piece, instead of laboring over a phrase in that first draft; you merely have to go back later, replacing each cliche with a phrase that is uniquely yours.

Dave September 1, 2011 at 7:50 am

One phrase I see a lot of is the sure [...] but [...]. The usual formula seems to be take something obvious then quickly negate it. “Sure he’s a great writer but great writers don’t use cliches.” Annoying.

Your “sure… but” above in the article wasn’t as bad as the ones I’ve seen though which is good. Watch for it, it appears a lot.

Gene December 7, 2011 at 9:04 am

Funny – I found this post by searching for an alternative to the phrase “Check out this…”. It is becoming cliched and yet is used here to link to three articles including 500 cliches to avoid. Help!

Emma January 18, 2012 at 6:23 am

I love this article! sadly – I know A LOT about clichés! :O( that is why I searched this site for articles on them.
Last year, after a decade away from any kind of writing I decided to get back to it. Took a few workshops which were great. In Autumn I took a workshop and wrote a quick story which I volunteered to read. It wasn’t until I read the very last word of my little story, to the 60 some odd people, that I realized I wrote one HUGE cliché. Mortified! I was completely mortified! and did not intend to go back but was dragged by my cousin last Autumn to another workshop.
Figuring I was already embarrassed I might as well ask if anyone has any ideas on how to avoid clichés.
The advice I got was that if you can’t help the clichés than let them flow – write it all out and concentrate only on the scene or story. When you are either going over the scene or working on the 2nd draft than fix the cliches – expand upon the ideas.
Not only did the advice work but it helped me to relax and finally enjoy writing again. I am in process of fixing the obvious clichés but might need to reach out to the ‘world at large’ (cliché intended! *hah*) for the ones i miss.
I really appreciate this article! Thank you!!!!

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