Do cliches have any place in writing?
Just so we’re all on the same page, here are a couple definitions of a cliche:
– a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting
– something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective
-a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse
Have you ever heard a saying so much it makes you cringe? That’s definitely a cliche. But there are so many that have been interwoven into everyday speech, we may not even think of them as cliches. Many are passed down over years. Some have historical significance that we don’t even remember or aren’t aware of. Sports and sailing are the root of many, such as: they talk a good game, take one for the team, they’re a team player, know the ropes, clean slate, and above board.
There are more cliches than I could possibly list, but here are a few:
Behind the eight ball.
Out of left field.
Out for the count.
By the skin of my teeth.
Make no bones about it.
Read between the lines.
Raining like cats and dogs.
Get with the program.
Go the extra mile.
Make out like a bandit.
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
Firing on all cylinders.
Flat as a pancake.
Chew the fat.
Live and learn.
Dime a dozen.
Smart as a whip.
Sly as a fox.
Plenty of fish in the sea.
Thick as thieves.
If only walls could talk.
I’m sure you get the idea. These are all phrases that were at one time clever and catchy. Over time however, according to the definitions above, they become overused, stale, and tired. Some of these sayings even start to make people cringe.
For me, there is one cliche that makes me chuckle at the ironic nature of it. Given that a cliche is an overused saying, when I still hear “think outside the box,” I want to ask the user if they realize they are not “thinking outside the box” by using a cliche.
Back to my original question. Is it ever okay to use cliches in writing? Well in my opinion, no…and yes.
According to the definitions, cliches have lost their originality…their effectiveness. They are phrases that have lost their impact from long overuse. I’ve also seen them referred to as sayings so overused, they’ve become annoying. Why would we want this in our writing? Writing is about connecting with the reader. Getting your thoughts or story into their head…taking them away for a ride in your imaginary world. Why would you want to annoy them? This is the type of thing that could jolt your reader out of the story, like inconsistent points of view or mixing past and present tense. Elizabeth Spann Craig wrote a great post on yanking readers out of a story.
I think as writers, we should try to be fresh and original without laying down easy phrases that have become cliches. Sure they may quickly pop into our heads when we’re in a hurry getting words down, keeping up with the ideas and thoughts in our heads. Perhaps they can act as place holders in the first draft, but if that’s the case, maybe highlight them to change later.
I generally try to avoid cliches in my first draft. While editing, I purposely look for them, making a conscious effort to pull them out. It’s not easy. One could argue that some cliches are so common place that they are hard to avoid. I think, even trying to avoid them, you’ll still end up with a few. While writing this post, I had to stop myself from dropping a few…even harder when you’ve got cliches on the brain.
There may be times when a writer wants to include a cliche in dialogue to create a certain feel, and that’s their decision. One of the best parts of being a writer is the complete freedom to write what you want. If you want to string a bunch of cliches together, go ahead. Lay a beat to it and it might make the top 50 music charts. There may be a particular part in a story where you want to use them. It’s up to you.
I would, however, suggest that writers should know what a cliche is, be aware when they are using one, and to make sure it’s use somehow fits with the story. As with any skill, the more you know about writing and language, the better.
In my opinion on whether or not writers should use cliches, it comes down to…intentional writing.
Oh, and in case I’m way off base here, I didn’t mean to send you on a wild goose chase. When it comes to cliches, you can avoid them like the plague, or you can take them as they come. Live and learn, I say.
Do you think cliches have any place in writing? Drop me a line in the comments.
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