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…
If these phrases sound familiar, it’s because they are. They’re clichés--phrases that have become so overused they’re considered stale and unoriginal.
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.
Thankfully, AutoCrit can help you spot them–but the tricky part is coming up with something more original.
Here are a couple of my favorite strategies
Let your characters be your guide.
Replace a cliché with a phrase unique to your character. For instance, say you have a character who is 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 as inspiration.
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 corp 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.”
The exception to the rule
While 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—for example, you may have a character who uses clichés in dialogue:
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” my grandfather said, holding out my piggybank and smiling as I deposited my allowance.
You may also have a 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. So that one can stay.
While most clichés should be avoided like the plague (ha, see what I did there?)—make sure you review each potential cliché before revising.
The bottom line
Strong writing is crisp and distinct. Clichés are cheesy and amateurish. And you’re better than that.