Editing Challenge Day 19: Cut the Clichés

The Blairzone - 24This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.

It’s time, readers, for one of the age-old practices of editing: now that we have shaped and altered a lot of the big picture elements of a story, we are ready to examine our writing on a sentence level. Today we are on the hunt for clichés.

What is a cliché and why is it so bad? We all know examples of clichés. Are you blind as a bat? Do you think blood is thicker than water? When there was a car stopped in the street, was there a deafening chorus of horns? Was it just the icing on the cake when you won that prize, or was it the tip of the iceberg? Our language abounds with phrases that easily slip of the tongue and that have the ring of idiomatic familiarity to them. We use them in speech precisely because they’re a kind of shared shorthand with our fellow human beings. We know them already, and so they act efficiently when we are trying to communicate something. And that’s precisely why they’re so noxious in creative writing. On the page, they’re old news: they’re unfresh, uninviting, not giving us a new perspective on anything. They’re relying on other people’s thoughts to make a scene, and so they end up acting as dead space on the page. The reader’s eye will skip right over them because they’re so familiar — and if all we’re doing is skipping, then it’s like a screen with a dead pixel. There’s nothing left to enjoy.

Cliches are a sign of lazy writing, and so they make readers trust the writer a little bit less with each one that appears. They create a cumulative effect of incompetence or of apathy. Didn’t the writer care enough to work harder and give me something new? The reader will wonder.

So let’s make sure we don’t let a single one into our writing. Let’s strike them down with the full force of our power and strength as discerning editors. Today, get out the red pen and read through your story, circling any clichés. By cutting them, you’re creating an empty space in your writing, of course; you’ll have to fill in the blank with a phrase that is more new and more individual. Often, the way to fight a cliché is by getting more specific. If you have a character who is joyful, don’t say he’s over the moon; think about his specific expression of joy. What does he do that is unique to him?

Here’s a list of some of my favorite clichés or over-familiar phrasings that I’ve collected from student work over the years. It’s a place to get you started in your hunt:

every fibre of my being
jumped out of my skin
it all started when
she was his everything
her smile lit up the room
this is just the icing on the cake
hit me like a ton of bricks
heart skipped a beat
just a pawn in the game
he was as free as a bird
it was like a slap in the face
who am I to judge
the man of my dreams
at lightning speed
one thing leads to another
to say the least/needless to say
nothing would ever be the same
it all happened so fast
she stormed off
little did I know
the fabric of our lives/existence
she meant the world to him
each and every one of you
only time will tell
day in and day out
Just when I least expected it
right then and there
the next thing I knew
he is a blessing in disguise
it was my home away from home
tears streamed down my face
cried myself to sleep
with that,…

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