How to avoid clichés in your writing

Roy Peter Clark writes, “Clichés can multiply and take over your story like text-eating bacteria.”

Playing your cards close to your vest…whistling past the graveyard…minding your p’s and q’s…facing the music…toeing the line…putting your nose to the grindstone…swimming against the tide…

Over-reliance on clichés is a form of automatic thinking. As part of the writing process, you may find that you include (or rely on) clichés in a draft. Perhaps you use them as placeholders as the language flows through your fingers onto the screen or page. Revision gives you a chance to think of something fresh, or at least simple, to replace the hackneyed language.

  • Don’t be afraid to take a cliché and tweak it. Write it down and begin to improvise off of it.
  • Make sure you understand the origin of the cliché: It’s “toe the line” not “tow the line.”
  • Be cautious of the “buzz word,” the instant cliché spun off by the culture that’s suddenly used in every news show or web article.
  • The occasional cliché may be just the right fit, but recognize when you are using clichés in clusters. Those become writing crutches.
  • Before you use a cliché, give yourself one minute to think of an alternative.
  • Conduct an internet search on your cliché. Perhaps it is not as overused as you think ― or more overused.
  • Be sensitive to clichés of language, but even more to clichés of vision ― tired ways of seeing the world.

Taken from Help! for Writers, a self-directed course by Roy Peter Clark at Poynter NewsU.

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