That’s a great question. A real game-changer.
Thing is, it’s not really a game-changer, is it? For one thing, we’re not playing a game. For another, it’s a question which has been asked before, and which many other keen minds have answered. It’s old hat.
That doesn’t work either. A question isn’t a hat, and it isn’t clear what’s particularly bad about a hat being old; compared to, say, an old shirt or some old pants. That dog won’t hunt.
If a question’s not a hat, I’m pretty sure a hat isn’t a dog; and what are we hunting, anyway?
Alright, alright. The conceit’s outlived its usefulness. I hope I made my point, painful as it was. While some clichés can sometimes be useful in your writing, they’re far too often a lazy substitute for truly engaging prose. When they’re at their worst, they can be incredibly distracting for a reader, ruining immersion and casting doubt on your talent as a writer.
Overuse of clichés is an easy way to give the impression that you’re either a novice without a voice, or a hack who can’t be bothered to put the time in to craft something worth reading. Neither of those outcomes is desirable. If I was a lazy writer who didn’t understand the source material, I’d say it was a real Catch-22.
Excising all clichés from your writing is probably too extreme a goal, and there are times when certain clichés can be productive. If you’re just starting out, though, it’s best to treat any cliché with a healthy suspicion. In particular, watch out for clichés which commit one or more of the sins below.
Clichés to Avoid: Top Cliché Sins
- Too specific. Clichés which are too specific to a certain time, place or idiom run the risk of alienating a large part of your audience. This is especially true if you publish online, where you’re highly likely to have an international readership.
- Vague or unusual. At the other end of the familiarity scale, uncommon or vague clichés run the risk of alienating everyone. If your reader doesn’t know what you’re talking about, they’re likely to think one of two things: either you’re too wordy for them, or you don’t know what you’re talking about either.
- Outdated. Old-fashioned clichés which are no longer relevant to modern society appear even more hackneyed than your average cliché. The “old hat” saying used above is a good example of this: when it was first recorded in 18th century Britain, a smart hat was part of a gentleman’s attire, and a hat which appeared battered and old would give the impression of a man without means. An old hat might be comfortable, but it was far from a mark of elegance. Today, we (unfortunately) judge on appearances as much as ever; but hats are much less common fashion items, making the cliché anachronistic.
- Inappropriate. There are two main ways a cliché can be inappropriate. The first is that it simply does not work as intended: referring to two equally undesirable options as a Catch-22 is a common misunderstanding of the basic narrative of Joseph Heller’s novel, and a mistake which calls into question one’s competence as a writer and a reader. A cliché can also be inappropriate in the sense of being offensive, such as a lazy appeal to a national or ethnic stereotype.
- Substitute for facts. An overuse of clichés can sometimes be an attempt to mask the fact that the writer doesn’t know how to make their case as well as they imagine. “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is stated as a self-justifying truth. “In the old days, children were more respectful” is another example, providing no supporting evidence save for its appeal to cliché.
If the cliché you’re considering using doesn’t fall into any of these traps (there I go again), it might be an example of a productive cliché. Clichés which work as descriptive imagery (“the tip of the iceberg”), or are idioms which fit your voice and that of your audience, are the most likely to be valuable additions to your writing. Don’t be afraid to experiment, even with one or two of the ‘bad’ clichés: writing should be a fun and creative endeavour.
Next Wednesday I’m going to look at another form of cliché – tropes, or genre conventions. What are some of your favourite and least favourite clichés? Let me know in the comments, or get in touch.