Avoid cliches like the plague if you want your writing to improve. You’ve heard that before, I know, but seriously–you need another cliche-infested sentence like you need a hole in the head.
I believe it was George Orwell who said that if a phrase even rings familiar, it’s a cliche. So we’re not talking about only things like “crying over spilled milk” or “sticking out like a sore thumb”, but also the arrangement of even two or three words in a trite, too-familiar order.
How many times has a romance heroine’s hair “spilled” across a pillow? When is a book lover anything but an “avid” reader? Read 24/7 With the Cliche Expert for a startling look at just how many adjective/noun pairs are inseparable.
Q: All right. I shall give you a series of nouns, and you supply the adjective that Homerically must precede each one. Are you ready?
A: As I’ll ever be.
Q: Competition is?
Q: And any success?
Q: Agendas, endorsements, margins, bases, sources, the future, arguments, potential, waters, efforts, and breath?
A: Hidden, key, slim (or overwhelming), continuing, knowledgeable, foreseeable, heated, full, uncharted, Herculean, and bated. Bada bing! I may not be the flavor of the month, but I’m on a roll.
Cliches are easy to use and easy to rely on because they are so familiar. The problem is that they are so boring. It’s sometimes easier (for me, at least) to spot and eradicate cliches on a grander scale–cliches of plot, of theme, of lede or kicker, of phrases like “than you can shake a stick at”–than to find the tiny, overused cliches of one or two words.
In addition to being boring, pre-fab cliches are often used incorrectly. Was that battle really epic, or might there be a better way to describe it?
Tips for weeding out cliches? I have none. I know it takes a lot of work, but Orwell has this to say about taking the easy way out and refusing to take up the responsibility of writing with accuracy:
You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. —Politics and the English Language, 1946
Orwell continues with the argument that sloppy language corrupts thought–the same argument used in 1984 with Newspeak. If you have no way to express your thoughts, those thoughts eventually become impossible. This grumpy writer is less concerned with politics than with producing writing that is interesting, clear, and cliche-free. Now you, too, can aspire to the lofty goal of making the world a better place–without cliches.