A few years ago, in a sudden compulsion to read something new and different, I chose the new book from a highly acclaimed and bestselling American author. I had seen her name everywhere, and so I figured, turns out wrongly, that America knew about which she spoke.
While I’ve been told to give the author another shot, I cannot. My friends have said that the book I read was by far this author’s worst. They have continued to herald her art. Given that the ringing endorsement is hardly the bell toll of praise and this the book I read was so heavy with cliche that it was nearly unreadable, I have staunchly refused to read another of her books. And I continue to wonder how on earth she sells so many badly written tomes.
Cliches exist for a reason. They do not rise unbidden from the ether, imbued with sudden and universal meaning. They exist because at one point, the phrases meant something; most often the slew of words had an evocative and fresh sound and so they they increased in our lexicon until they became the dreaded cliche.
When I find cliches in modern work now, I am hard pressed to let the author off the hook. Cliches might bother me more as a reader than grammar or spelling or even stupid characters. Cliches are lazy. Cliches do not do any heavy lifting, and they let the author, and the reader, get away with lazy writing and lazy reading. When I find a cliche, I groan. I roll my eyes. I gasp.
Cliches are easy to spot. But they are also easy to fix, especially for the writer who has a facility with language, which is sort of an assumption I make of authors. I mean, if you’re job is to utilize words, should you not then know how to use them?
Here are some cliches from the books first ten pages:
Handle with care
The solid ground beneath our feet
High school sweethearts
flew like missiles
plea for mercy
read between the lines
Now maybe you think I’m being too hard on this here writer lady. And maybe I am, but if ten pages are that laden, the final three coming on the same page, the last two in the same sentence, then I’m already bored. The thing about cliches is that they ARE easy, and that is why we use them. Readers quickly understand what’s being said. And I guess I expect more from a book than easy. I expect newness. I expect to hear about high school sweethearts in a way I’ve never seen them before. I want to see that something can fly differently than missiles. I want to be rapt by someone else’s creativity.
Now, of course, there are fun ways to employ cliches in writing. For example, in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver creates a character whose consistent use of malapropisms is both funny and character indicative. There is a reason, other than laziness, for the cliches, which are turned on their heads by an expert.
Readers, Try This:
Grab the book you’re reading now and skim a few pages you’ve already read. Notice any cliches? Can you think of any ways these might be made fresher? Or can you establish a good reason for the use of the cliche?
Writers, Try This
Open your latest work in progress, whether it’s a short story or a novel or a blog post. Identify your cliches and replace them with your own sparkling wit.
What are your least favorite cliches? They don’t have to be phrases either; they could be harried housewife or the male executive in the mid life crisis.