Just because they’re used all time—in movies especially—doesn’t mean that clichés should be legal. At the risk of sounding bitter, any writer producing manuscripts laced with offensively common, cringe-worthy clichés should get out of town a little more. Take a day-trip somewhere, visit an art gallery, or go see a play. Read Spurgeon, Dickens, and Thoreau. Study the greats. That should begin to antagonize those comfortable clichés and engage the sensational storyteller within you.
One of my favorite communicators is a 19th century Scottish preacher by the name of George Matheson whose unique perspective came from an acute limitation—his blindness. I’m convinced that due to his inability to see the world around him, he had the rare opportunity to envision life and express what he saw in a way no one with sight could. He also wasn’t reading material that had been repeated again and again, which is where I believe contemporary writers get the majority of their overworked phrases.
After years reviewing incoming manuscripts for a mid-level publishing house, I can tell you that one of the most damaging practices of an inexperienced writer is the oblivious, relentless use of clichés. I’ll give you an example, but first read the following sentence written by Theodore Parker that, while is perhaps too long by today’s standards, is simply a work of art.
“But ere long the lightning had gone by, the thunder was spent and silent, the rain was over, the western wind came up with its sweet breath, the clouds were chased away, and the retreating storm threw a scarf of rainbows over her fair shoulders and resplendent neck, and looked back and smiled, and so withdrew and passed out of sight.”
Right? I know… crazy good. Now, read my collection of clichés taken from submissions by newbies clueless of their painful yet prevalent habit.
Debbie bit down on her lower lip as she swallowed the lump in her throat. Her brows furrowed and a chill ran up her spine as she read her boyfriend’s breakup letter again. She clenched her teethe then let out a heavy sigh. She felt cheated. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, she thought. But who was she kidding? “No, I’ll do the right thing.” She would forgive and forget. After all, it was water under the bridge, and time to turn over a new leaf. She clucked her tongue and chirped aloud, “No use crying over spilled milk!”
Need I say more?
Before you type the first thing that drops into your head from the inner recording device that’s been on since birth, stop the minute you realize it and remember this word: Elevate. Ask yourself how you can elevate the word, sentence, paragraph, story, and everything else you share with your audience. Push the boundaries, paint in bold colors, shout, whisper, confide, proclaim! Your offerings are entirely yours, so why should they sound like everybody else? Don’t spatter the fresh and original with the old and mundane. Wash the work clean of contrived clutter. Heat the tepid phrase; quench the thirsty sentence that wilts one into another. Words are meant to provoke anger, stir emotions, incite laughter, and ignite the imagination. You write to nurture the soul not lull it to sleep.
If you’re feeling like you might be an unwilling offender of this seemingly harmless misdemeanor, remember that words can live long and inspire millions—or not. Let yours speak a new and lovely language composed by the intimacy of individuality. Let them say what no one else has said, and in a way only you can say it. Clichés have no place in the gallery of your life. Consistently creating originality will reflect the best you.