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Avoid Clichés Like the Plague: Words and Phrases...and Idioms

Greetings, writer pals! Two announcements today:

One: We have a winner. One of our delightful commenters has won a free five-page edit! And it's none other than...

Tom Threadgill!

Congrats, Tom! Contact Erynn at alittleredinc@gmail(dot)com to tell her about your work!

Announcement numero dos:

We're starting a new series today on avoiding all sorts of clichés (like the plague).  Today, we'll hit phrases and common idioms that lead to lazy writing. Next week, we'll slam cliché gestures and body language that creep into our characters' interactions. The big finale will knock out the top storytelling clichés.

Let's do this. You want to be a writer. You dream, you plot, you research, and you begin pouring your ideas on paper. Often, the first draft is more about story. You may have some wicked beautiful phrasing in there, there may be places your voice sings, but--odds are--not so many. In fact, it's fairly likely that, in order to keep the story going, you'll take some shortcuts. I know I do. How many of you are doing NaNoWriMo this month? It pays to turn off that Internal Editor and  just write while ideas are flowing.

As long as you turn your IE back on for the second lap. 

Let's look at a few things you can target to seek and destroy as you run back through.

First, lazy words.    Went. Looked. Turned. Gasped. Sighed. 

You can always do better than these. Ask yourself these questions (and avoid answering them by merely adding adverbs).


  • By what means? Air? Car? Boat? On foot? Crazy local taxi?
  • How fast? Did they jet? Race? Speed? Slice? Stroll? Careen?
  • If walking, with what purpose/attitude? Were they ambling? Strolling? Sneaking? Skulking?  
  • Do you mean appeared or seemed? (He looked angry?) If so, show, don't tell. 
  • Do you mean someone physically turned their head and eyed something? If yes, then use the following questions.
  • How long did they look? Were they glancing? Observing? 
  • How intensely did they look? Did they gaze? Eye? Peruse? Pore over?
  • Why were they looking? Studying? Ogling? Lusting? Memorizing? 
  • Were they twirling, like Meg Ryan and her mother in You've Got Mail? Because that's precious.
  • Did he spin and face his enemy? Did he swing his head to meet her gaze? 
  • Were they in a car? Were they veering? Cranking the wheel? Easing? Bearing right?
  • Were we talking about lights or music? Switched on? Cranked up? Muted? Dialed back?
Gasped and sighed:
  • All I can say about these is that they're overdone. Similar questions might help. Knowing why someone needs to inhale or exhale and what they're truly conveying in that moment is key. If you've got to use them, limit yourself SEVERELY. Once or twice per book? There are other, more unique things your characters can do to express shock, relief, fatigue, or frustration. Find 'em and use 'em. Next week's post will help. 
Second, phrases and idioms. These are so commonly used that they just roll off our tongues. They're the phrases that you can pull right out of the air or right off the top of your head. But we can get carried away using them, and we need to learn to think outside of the box. At the end of the day, as writers, the words you choose matter.

See what I did there? Doesn't that make you almost go ballistic

Often, taking something familiar and tweaking it to put it in the language of your character's hobbies, skill sets, likes, and personality will do the trick.

One of my heroines is a musician in a dangerous relationship. Rather than thinking of her boyfriend's mood swings changing like the weather, she thinks:  

In an single beat, there was discord where there'd been harmony.

I've got a baseball player who's had enough of his sister's excuses. In the middle of a serious moment, he wants the truth to register with her. But he doesn't say that. He thinks:

If I could get her out of this slump...

Whenever you see clichés in your prose, get yourself deep into the mind and motives of your characters. If you understand why or how the actions are playing out, chances are, Writer-friend, that you can come up with a much better word or phrase.  

After all, you're a logophile, right?

Now, in the comments, hit me with one of these: 1) a cliché or two that you see all the time (and hate), or 2) a line from a favorite book (or your original work!) where the character's voice has been well-wielded to avoid cliché.  

Thanks for swinging by!
                          And thanks to A Syn and ADoseofShipBoy for the images.


  1. I'm so afraid of writing a cliche! If I think to myself, "Is this a cliche?" I suppose it is!

    Also, you should see my list of crutch words that I have to slice from my drafts. I have lots of crutches.

    1. Right! Me, too. My rule of thumb is, if you can't take it LITERALLY, but other people would know what you mean and not compliment you on your poetry or say, "I've never thought of it like that before," then... I'm glad you keep a list of crutch words. It shows. THAT makes it a joy to read your work.

  2. It's so hard to avoid all clichés in our writing. I find it a challenge at times, but I totally agree, we need to eradicate them. Thanks for your words of wisdom in this post.


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