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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    Vicki Krueger

    Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current position as marketing communications manager.

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