On cliches

Cliches (or, if you prefer, clichés, because though the accent's a bit old-fashioned, it points the way towards pronunciation) aren't all that bad.

Not all the time, anyway.

Because they're well-known, a cliche can convey meaning directly in ways that are mutually understood. They're fast, and to some extent ready-made, so we don't have to think about them. These pre-assembled language chunks are ready to go. When we're speaking they can be useful for all of these reasons: immediacy, intelligibility, efficiency.

If you were a lexicographer, you might refer to cliches as being examples of lexical phrases; pre-prepared language for easy insertion. Not all lexical phrases are cliches (there's polywords such as "at any rate", and sentence heads and tails like "Could you just..." and "...if yo don't mind", that are raring to go to start off or complete an enquiry) but all cliches are lexical phrases.

That's why we use them. Over time, the individual words within a cliched phrase have become fused together into a single entity. The phrase "avoid like the plague" might once have been funny, because the Black Death is best skirted around for all kinds of health-troubling reasons, so there's an amusing and perhaps jarring exaggeration to a social or other situation that one might not want to get involved with. Through over-use, though, any novelty or invention associated with the phrase has been worn away. All that's left is the base meaning of "avoid".

In everyday speech then, cliches have their place. Heck, in drama or fiction, a character using cliched terms might be useful, either for reasons of immediacy or because it tells us something about that character (their lack of imagination, for example).

However, someone who can only converse in cliches, whether that person's real or fictional, is going to get boring to be with sharpish. And if you're the writer, and cliches infest your writing (both dialogue and descriptive) then it's you that are boring. And boring writers don't get read.   

So here's what I do. Maybe it'll work for you. Perhaps you've got a different approach to cliche; if so, share!

In the first draft, I don't worry, but I'm mindful of the potential for cliche. If one appears in a sentence, and it's immediately apparent that it's there (not as easy as it may appear because if I'm writing, then I'm often too focused on getting the words down than to fully appreciate what words are actually appearing on the left-hand side of the cursor) then I'll sort it out.

How?

I'll tell you in a minute.

If I can't operate straight away, then I'll flag the sentence up. I'm a Word user, so I'll use the comments facility to leave myself a message. Then I keep writing.  

Between the first and second draft (and usually the day after writing the first draft, as my routine is to re-read the previous day's work, and then sort out any typos and vivid language no-nos before getting on with the fresh day's word count. I remove the comments as I work, to tell myself that the issue's been seen to. 

Now, there'll doubtless be over-used phrases that'll get by a first or even a second draft, but with a little distance from the words, some focus, and a thimbleful of creativity, then cliches can be eradicated. 

My way of approaching cliches is to look for a way to twist the original slightly; just enough to retain the intended meaning, but with something - anything - that makes it different. Here's an example:

Ist draft: as pretty as a picture

2nd draft: as pretty as a photograph/landscape/portrait/cameo/mugshot

Not very creative perhaps, but there's a few options to select from, and I'd argue that each of them is better than the over-used "picture". And that's just from playing with one word. Can we do better than "pretty"?

And of course, the phrase "as pretty as a picture" is a simile. Any form of modifying word or phrase (adjective, adverb etc) should be scrutinized also. If it's needed, fair enough, That's your justification to use it. If not, and it's just an easy word that's inveigled its way in during first-drafting, then there's an easy edit to be made.

And does the sentiment even need to be there? Cliched writing can be filler. Stuff you write as you're working out what it is that you're really trying to say. Can it be cut? If so, then delete.   

So, a) I try to be aware of cliched phrases, and b) leave myself notes to act on them later if I'm not going to do that work immediately. Then c) I make a change small enough to keep a relationship to the original, but sufficient to keep the language as fresh as I can.

If I can, I cut.

The best cure for cliche is to read more. If you read other people using particular phrases, either repeatedly or jarringly, then that's something to remember for your own practice; not to use those constructions yourself.  

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Books by me are here, by the way: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Eamonn-Griffin/e/B00XJEK2PC

 

A second pair of eyes

Many folks out there (and perhaps even you) will be into the annual Nanowrimo writing marathon - 50,000 words in November's thirty days. If you're first-drafting no matter what the context, then that's probably not the time for second thoughts. Get it written. Get it done. That's what matters.

But there'll come a time when you have to face up to the horrors of the word-count at some point, and you'll have to go back and sort out your first version.

So here's a collection of ideas about how to approach that, focusing on the sentence level of writing. I'll put up another blog post in a few days that'll look at wider issues to do with redrafting, such as more structural matters.

  1. Give yourself time. The longer the better. At any point in time, there are two versions of what you've written. The version you think that you've written, and the version that actually exists. So give yourself a buffer to let you forget. The longer you can allow between the first and the second draft, the better. That way you'll forget what you think you've written and focus instead on what's actually there.
  2. Change your mode of reading. If your first draft is on a screen, then print it out. Or upload it to a tablet or an e-reader. Change it; make the reading experience different to the writing experience.
  3. It's OK to make little fixes as you go (or have a quick re-read the next time you come back to write to sort out obvious issues) but keep your brain either in drafting mode or in editing mode rather than shifting between the two.
  4. Leave yourself notes. I'm a Word user, so I use the comments facility (in the Review menu) to leave myself virtual Post-Its if there's something that I know I'm going to have to come back to. This has the effect of reminding you where to start when you're making your revisions/additions too. 
  5. Use the spell-checker. If you don't know how to, then find out. Your word-processing program is your primary work tool; it's only reasonable that you should know what the main buttons do. Yes, there are arcane functions that you'll never need, but there's plenty of assistance and support built into even the most basic of WP programs these days. 
  6. Make sure you've got your spell-checker configured appropriately (I'm in the UK, so I don't want it toggled to US English settings, for example).         
  7. Add to your spell-checker. Frequently-used words (character names and the like) can be added to the dictionary. 
  8. But don't overly rely on your spell-check facility. You're the writer, not the computer. 
  9. Use print dictionaries and a thesaurus; use online alternatives to these also. There are also online supports such as Hemingway and Grammarly that some might find useful. 
  10. Use different fonts for different processes. I saw this tip in Joanne Harris' Twitter feed. It's the work of seconds to change fonts, so why not use one for the drafting and another for the second draft? Again, this will make the words unfamiliar, and so you'll focus on what's actually there, not on what you think you've written.    
  11. Sit in a different room to your writing room when you're revising. Or if you write in coffee shops, do this at home. Or swap inside for outside. Again, shake up the routine. 
  12. Get a second opinion. A critical friend; someone who'll take the task of checking your work seriously, and yet won't beat you unnecessarily over the head with your manuscript for having dropped the occasional apostrophe. 
  13. If you're stuck, ask. There's plenty of help out there. 
  14. If you're really stuck and can't get help, make a decision and be consistent. That way, changes can be made easier if need be, plus it shows that you're in control of the manuscript. 
  15. This is an iterative process. It'll take a few goes to get right, but it gets easier over time, and next time out, you'll have learned from this time around and so you'll make fewer errors/typos etc.

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My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now. It's available in paperback from this website and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon