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The List of Clichés You Should Strike Down in Editing

List of Clichés to Strike Down in Editing

Strong writing is crisp and distinct. Clichés are cheesy and amateurish. And you’re better than that.

There are thousands of clichés out there, so it’s no wonder they sometimes creep into our writing during the drafting stage. But they can make your prose feel boring, unimaginative — or worse, amateurish.

Now that you’re editing, it’s time to rephrase those little buggers so your writing stays fresh.

But if you’ve never been overly concerned about clichés, think about it…

He wanted all hands on deck…

She had an axe to grind…

It was tough to make ends meet…

His hands were tied…

The game was a nail biter…

Every one of these is a cliché – phrases that have become so overused they’re now stale, unoriginal, and completely lacking in impact.

They flow into our brains and then right back out again, giving no spark, leaving no mark, and offering little to no engaging interaction with the prose.

That’s why you should avoid clichés as much as possible: You want your reader to occupy the story – to be, in their own way, a participant in the process.

When your writing is little more than a list of clichés, our conditioned brains skip right over most of it – and readers end up sleepwalking their way through.

Not great, is it?

There are plenty of other, more effective and engaging ways to say what you mean without falling back on clichés. That’s why it pays to strike them down as much as possible during editing.

To help that eagle eye of yours out, here’s a list of clichés to watch out for…


A (Non-Definitive) List of Clichés to Avoid

Chip off the old block
Loose cannon
Ace up his sleeve
Scared of his own shadow
Add insult to injury
Avoid like the plague
Let the cat out of the bag
Bad to the bone
Cross that bridge when we come to it
Bald-faced liar
Trial by fire
Bark is worse than his bite
Beggars can’t be choosers
Armed to the teeth
Bee in her bonnet
Ugly as sin
Bent out of shape
Bend over backwards
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Let off some steam
Burning the candle at both ends
Caught red handed
A checkered past
Until the cows come home
Take the bull by the horns
Fit as a fiddle
Chomping/Champing at the bit
Come hell or high water
Cute as a button
No stone unturned
The devil is in the details
All your eggs in one basket
Don’t rock the boat
Down in the dumps
Beat around the bush
Driven up the wall
Keep an ear to the ground
Level the playing field
Barking up the wrong tree
Everything but the kitchen sink
For all intents and purposes
Force to be reckoned with
In the nick of time
It goes without saying
Knock it out of the park
Neither here nor there
Bite the bullet
Nothing to sneeze at
Older than dirt
Open a can of worms
Pleased as punch
Quiet as a mouse
Weed them out
The whole hog
Go the whole nine yards
Work like a dog
Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Yanking your chain
Nip it in the bud
Tough as nails
At the end of the day
When push comes to shove
No use crying over spilt milk
Back to the drawing board
Phone it in



How to Avoid Cliché Overload

Thankfully, AutoCrit can help you spot when clichés are popping up in your manuscript – but the tricky part is coming up with something more original to replace them.

Here’s a few ideas to help with that:

Let your characters inspire you.

Replace a cliché with a phrase unique to your character. For instance, say you have a character who’s a chef; instead of saying she’s as “nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof,” say she’s as “nervous as the day she threw her first dinner party.”

Use settings or situations.

Align your phrases with the scene itself.  For example, say you have a character who is about to play quarterback in the big game; instead of writing, “Simon’s heart was racing,” say “Simon’s heart thundered in time with the drum corps marching its way across the field.”

Be specific.

Clichés are often generalizations, so a quick way to revise them is simply to be more specific.  For instance, instead of writing, “Penelope woke in the middle of the night,” say “Penelope woke at 3 a.m.”


But Sometimes, Clichés Are Fine

Though most clichés should be rephrased, you don’t have to eliminate every last one.  An occasional cliché is okay, especially if it works in context – you might have a character that uses plenty of clichés when they speak, for example. This can be a good way to develop and define their personality, especially if you give them a specific list of clichés from which they regularly draw.

You might also use the odd phrase that looks like a cliché but is perfectly legitimate.

Consider these two examples:

The pair worked side by side for years.

John laid the napkins side by side.

The phrase “side by side” is a cliché – but in these examples, that phrase is used in two different ways.

The first example is definitely a cliché.  “Side by side” is an overused phrase that should be revised: “The pair shared the same cubicle for five years.”

The second example, however, simply shows a factual description of John’s actions.  Changing the description to “next to each other” or something similar wouldn’t necessarily improve the sentence.

While most clichés should be avoided like the plague (ha, see what I did there?) – make sure you review each potential cliché before committing to changing it.

To save you the hassle of printing out and keeping a list of clichés handy, AutoCrit sports its very own cliché analysis. This feature searches your entire manuscript in real time and produces a handy report of when and where you’re using clichés, complete with highlights – so you can make an informed decision on whether to keep them, or strike ‘em down.

Go create your free AutoCrit account today, and watch that uninteresting list of clichés transform into well-rounded, appealing prose that captures the imagination… instead of stifling it.


Join the Discussion on “The List of Clichés You Should Strike Down in Editing”

  1. Chris Graham says:

    Of course one has to remember that there’s often a good reason why many clichés have become clichés… because they resonate with people. Often, not using the expected cliché will feel strange to the reader.

    What’s required is finding that balance between overworking commonly used phrases, and being deliberately so obscure that the reader either doesn’t understand, or concentrates too much on your cleverly crafted ‘turn of phrase’, and misses the vital clue to the detective mystery they’re supposed to be following.

    Often I’ll read something submitted for editing, and I can tell that the author has deliberately contrived a replacement phrase for a commonly used one they’ve believed to be a cliché. Unfortunately, in the situation, the ‘cliché’ would have worked better. Also, if you’re writing from the point of view of a particular character, you need to make sure that any similes you use are appropriate to his or her background and education (most of the commonly used clichés are being used as similes.).

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks, Chris. All excellent points!

  2. Wendy says:

    I agree with Chris. What we really need is a new word for those “cliches” that have, by specific and consistent usage, become “words with spaces in them”–they trigger a specific meaning that is readily understood and would actually be awkward to substitute. For example, try saying something that has the same sense as “all hands on deck” without getting wordy or less specific about the level or readiness expected. I can’t. (Although I could prove my nautical knowledge by saying “all hands and the cook on deck”)

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks, Wendy. Excellent points.

  3. Tricia says:

    For what it’s worth,
    At the end of the day,
    It is what it is:
    A cliché’s a cliché.

    I hope you realize where my tongue is placed here.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Nice, Tricia. Thanks! 🙂

  4. Robin says:

    It also depends on where you live and what phrases have entered the patois of your own, often regional palette.

    Y’all come back now, hear?

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Absolutely! Excellent point, Robin. Thanks

  5. Richard Lowe says:

    For me, cliches are nothing to sneeze at. But when push comes to shove, we have to take the bull by the horns and go back to the drawing board and leave no stone unturned to nip them in the bud.


    1. AutoCrit says:

      Ha ha! That’s good, Richard 🙂

  6. David Kilner says:

    Two comments:
    1) The dilemma is that all of use cliches all the time. So if a character never uses them, they can sound affected and unrealistic. So I agree we should leaven the bread (sorry) with a sprinkling of cliches.
    2) I have experienced the ‘side by side’ problem on occasion and I wonder if Autocrit could let us mark a specific phrase as ‘Not a chiche’ so we don’t get bugged all the time over a perfectly acceptable use of an expression?

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Hi David. Yes, clearly the key is finding the write balance in our writing.

      On your second question, we don’t have an option right now to exclude certain cliches. We do offer an option to exclude words in the reports, though:

  7. Lisa Tener says:

    One strategy that can sometimes work is taking the cliche and changing a word or two to make it fresh or surprising. I would not advise doing this often, but once in a blue moon (couldn’t resist).
    I love the tongue in cheek comments people shared.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks, Lisa. Great strategy. Amazing how much impact a single word can have sometimes.

  8. Jennifer Cornell says:

    I can’t stand cliches that are used wrong because they are no longer understood, ie. A long road to hoe, for all intense and purposes, etc. Just kill me now!

  9. Karen Waldauer says:

    Except that it’s a long ROW to hoe, which makes perfect sense, even if it is still a cliche.

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