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
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
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.”
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 give it a try today, and watch that uninteresting list of clichés transform into well-rounded, appealing prose that captures the imagination… instead of stifling it.