If Not Cliches, What Else?

by Tim


If none of the 681 cliches/phrases you show on the Cliches Page are to be used 'as a rule' then surely writers will run out of phrases to explain certain things, will they not?

I mean if a certain cliche fits the bill (!) perfectly, then why change it for something that is not so good? I understand the point behind doing away with cliches, but how far must we go?


Tim, clichés are overused words and phrases. They convey our first thoughts, not our best thoughts. We use them often in casual speech, but interesting writing requires more precision. Clichés rob language of its emotional effect. They are a type of "shorthand" that provides information, but no surprise. They arouse no curiosity. Readers skim over clichés. They can read two words and finish the phrase without reading the rest.

Good writing is "good" because it arouses curiosity and has an emotional effect on readers. Successful fiction evokes emotion. The usual emotional effect of clichéd writing is boredom.

Successful writers would rather spend two hours crafting a sentence that avoids "fits the bill" than use the cliché because they value originality and hope to excite readers, not bore them. Creative writers never run out of fresh ways to convey their ideas, as anyone who reads literary fiction can confirm.

The skill of creative writing is more difficult to master than most skills because there is a lot to learn and it takes years of practice to put what you learn into practice.

Any first year med student likely knows that the 206 bones in the human body are divided into four classes—long bones, short bones, flat bones, and irregular bones. Later those destined for surgery will learn the position of each of the 206 bones, and what nerves, muscles, blood vessels, and tissue surrounds each. Only after years of practice will a skilled surgeon understand fully how his or her actions affects each of these other elements.

Similarly, the elements of writing may be divided into seven classes—theme, structure, plot, point of view, setting characterization,
dialogue, and style. Most high school students know that. But understanding the characteristics and techniques involved in each of the classes is not common knowledge. Masterful writing technique cannot be taught over one term or even several. Successful writers wield hundreds of skills, acquired through study, reading, and trial and error, and it is only over many years that one acquires all the necessary understanding and skill of a great writer.

For example, an unskilled writer will introduce a character by describing the character's physical characteristics—height; weight; eye, skin, or hair colour; clothing: She had a creamy white complexion and batted wide blue eyes circled by lashes thick with mascara.

A skilled writer knows that physical characteristics alone fail to evoke emotion. Combine them with clichés and they become even less interesting. A skilled writer will only mention eyes if they show an important character trait: She glanced at him with glittering eyes and then spent the next five minutes looking past him at her reflection in the darkened window.

In the first instance, we learn nothing about the character except her eye colour and that she wears mascara. Neither of these tell us anything about her character. The second example arouses curiosity. Why are her eyes glittering? Why does she focus on her reflection? Is she vain, or is she only avoiding eye contact?

Skilful writers consciously shape words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters to create tension, emotion, curiosity, and interest. They consciously practice for years, reading and analyzing the writing of others all the while, until they effectively use known techniques without thinking about them. Mediocre writers sometimes don't even know which techniques exist, let alone how to combine them for greatest effect.

Writers write, but they also study and practice. They revise, and revise, and revise to perfect what they have written. Sitting at a piano to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star , does not make one a pianist. Nor does sitting at a computer to type the first thoughts into one's head (usually cliché ridden), make one an author.

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