There are many writing tips that tell us what to avoid in our work: We should keep adverbs to a minimum. Don’t use verbiage, which is excessive and unnecessary language. Watch out for info dumps. And avoid clichés.
But why should we avoid clichés? What’s a cliché, anyway, and how do we identify them in our writing? What if a cliché is the best way to express something?
Let’s explore these questions and determine whether it’s really necessary to avoid clichés.
What is a Cliché?
Clichés are words and phrases that have fallen into overuse and therefore have lost their luster. They are often short, common phrases that encapsulate complex ideas, and they are useful for streamlining communication in everyday conversation.
Some clichés might seem like regular use of language. For example, the Oxford Dictionary lists “at this moment in time” as a cliché. This struck me as pretty basic and straightforward use of language rather than a vivid metaphor that I would expect to be considered a cliché. This is a particularly interesting cliché because it can be used literally to refer to a specific moment (“At this moment in time, I’m in the bookstore, looking for a book on space travel”), or it can be used figuratively to refer to a period of time (“At this moment in time, there is no way to travel faster than the speed of light”).
Note, however, that in both examples, the cliché can be removed to tighten up the language, or it can be replaced with simpler, non-cliché language:
- I’m in the bookstore, looking for a book on space travel.
- Currently, there is no way to travel faster than the speed of light.
As you can see, sometimes a cliché does nothing more than clutter up the language, unnecessarily.
Other clichés that Oxford lists are more colorful and visual in nature, such as using “a level playing field” to refer to fairness. And then there are the really obvious clichés. These tend to be useful for communicating an idea quickly and vividly. For example, “one bad apple spoils the bunch.”
Oxford Dictionary offers a list of clichés that you can peruse, some of which might surprise you, because they seem like regular use of language until you consider them carefully.
Here are some other clichés that you might want to note:
- “Being a guinea pig” refers to testing something on someone.
- “In the current climate” refers the current mood or attitude of a culture.
- “Every rose has its thorn” (there’s a whole song about this from the 1980s) expresses the idea that even the most wonderful things in life are flawed or have drawbacks.
- “In the nick of time” is an interesting one because it means “just in time.”
- “Time is money” expresses the idea that a person’s time has monetary value.
- “Love is blind” means that we often cannot see the flaws in the people and things we love.
- “Think outside the box” is a way to encourage development of unconventional ideas.
How to Identify a Cliché
Clichés such as “every rose has its thorn” are easy to spot, whereas I was surprised to find that “in the final analysis” is considered a cliché. Here are some tips to help you identify a cliché:
- Look for metaphors; many clichés are metaphors that are in widespread use.
- Look for any phrases that are describing complex ideas in short, pithy, and often visual statements.
- Look for words and phrases that are not precise or accurate in what they are meant to convey (even if their meaning is still clear).
- Look for any phrases that you hear a lot in everyday speech.
People tend to adopt certain clichés, which then become frequent in their speech or conversation. For example, you might know someone who says “at the end of the day” a lot. These are often clichés.
Tropes and Clichés
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines cliché as “a trite phrase or expression,” and it describes a trope as “a common or overused theme or device : cliché.”
In the context of writing, a cliché (or trope) would be an element that is in frequent use, and in some cases, has become lackluster. Some tropes in writing are necessary while others should be avoided. For example, in the fantasy genre, a hero could be considered a trope, because heroes are common in fantasy stories. However, I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should stop writing stories featuring heroic characters. On the other hand, a trope in horror films would be characters running past the front door and upstairs when being chased through the house by a killer. This has been overdone and should probably be avoided (which was demonstrated in the 1996 film Scream).
When to Use Clichés
Some clichés are extremely trite while others might feel more like natural speech or normal communication. It’s not that you should avoid clichés like the plague (see what I did there?)…there might be times when it makes sense to use clichés. For example, you might be writing a character, and it’s only natural for them to use clichés in their dialogue. Or you might find that the best way to express something is to use an established cliché.
However, as a writer, part of your job is to come up with the best language to express your ideas, your vision, and your thoughts. Many clichés will only make your writing feel stale and overcooked.
As an exercise, go back to the list of clichés provided above and try to express each one in your own words. This is generally how you should handle clichés when they appear in your own writing.
If you find that you absolutely must use a cliché, you should probably only use the ones that feel more like natural speech. Using “at this moment in time” will be less problematic than using “love is blind.”
Do You Avoid Clichés?
What are your thoughts on avoiding clichés in written works? Are there times when clichés are acceptable, and if so, when? Do you have any techniques for identifying and removing clichés? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.