Avoid Writing Clichés: Good writing means learning to "Think Outside of the Box."
Avoid Clichés: Good writing means “Thinking Outside of the Box.”
Well, if you caught the irony in my title, you are free to go and don’t have to read the rest of this. If you did NOT catch the irony, then you might find something useful in what I have to say.
First, let’s establish what I mean by cliché. A cliché is an idea, often a catchy phrase, that has been used so much that everyone recognizes it immediately. “Better safe than sorry” and “It takes two to tango” are examples that come to mind off the top of my head. Clichés are useful because they convey ideas quickly, the phrase encompassing a larger concept that everyone already understands. All the work of communicating the idea has been done by whoever coined the original phrase, having done it so cleverly that the specific construction of words was repeated often enough to become a cliché.
A perfect example of that is the phrase “think outside of the box.” Someone somewhere in the last half century or so crafted this phrase to embody the idea of how our thinking sometimes gets locked into a small place, confined by “a box” that limits our access to new ideas and new ways of looking at and approaching problems. To “think outside the box” means to find NEW ways of doing things. Which is why it is ironic now. Any time you use “think outside the box” to express the need for originality, you are NOT expressing that need WITH originality. You are using a cliché.
Beyond how amusing that might be to think about, the greater point is to point it out about writing. Whether you are writing a novel, a short story, copy for a marketing piece, be it magazine, website or radio script, you should work very hard to remove clichés.
“But why?” you might ask. I just said a few paragraphs up that “Clichés are useful because they convey ideas quickly” and that is a good thing, right?
Well, in theory, yes. But clichés are boring. Think about this: how often do you read the same book over and over? Or watch the same episode of some TV show? A movie? I bet your first thought was, “Hah, hah! I watch such-and-such all the time.” Right. You can probably list the handful of movies/books/episodes you are willing to watch repeatedly. Can you think of any that you used to re-read/watch/listen but eventually grew tired of? Any songs come to mind? And what about all the rest? What about every other show and movie and book and poem and song and joke you’ve ever come across? How interesting would they be the second time, the fifth time, the hundredth time?
This song is so full of cliches it burns my ears. Like almost every line is one.
No matter how clever something is the first time or two, eventually it loses the ability to be interesting. It gets stale. Most things get stale very quickly. Really clever stuff gets used until it becomes stale from over use, becomes cliché.
So, when you are writing you need to think of your poor readers. They do not want to read a bunch of crap they've already read before. They want to have a NEW experience. They want YOU to think outside the box when you are writing so they don’t have to read the phrase “think outside the box” again for the ninety-thousandth time. They want you to do the creative work of giving them a fresh idea to think about. If you’re trying to get people to look for innovative ideas, tell them to “look under a new bed” or “hunt for prey in foreign woods” or something even better than that that YOU think of. Heck, just say “try to think of something new.” Use your creative power to invent new language, or just say what you mean straight out. One is clever, the other is honest, and either will help hold your readers’ interest.
Avoiding clichés matters because, if you’re trying to sell a product with your marketing piece, you need your readers to be engaged in the copy long enough to get to the offer or the link. If you’re writing a novel or short story, you need them to feel like they are in an interesting place spending time with characters they’ve never known before. If they keep running across clichéd language, they’re going to think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that they have “been down this road before.” If they’ve “already seen this” before, they are NOT going to be as emotionally engaged as they would if they were seeing something for the first time.
Now, we’ve all been told a million times that there are no new ideas. That’s true. However, there are new ways to say things that are subtle reflections of you and your values and personal aesthetics. YOU have never been before, so you can rearrange old letters and old words into something that is new.
Clichés happen to all of us. When I’m writing, I end up with lots of them popping up like weeds in my writing. It’s fine, that doesn’t mean I’m a terrible writer or a bad person. They are code for bigger ideas. And that’s great. When I go through my work and spot them, they tell me a lot. They tell me the concept I was getting at, point it out all nice and packaged neat. They ALSO tell me that I was clearly in a hurry at that point in my draft and that now I need to go back and open up that idea, slow down and rewrite it, taking the care to really understand what my point was beyond the easy, lazy language of the cliché. If my point was just the cliché, and if the cliché REALLY SERVES MY POINT, well, maybe I’ll leave it. But I try very hard to catch them, and if I leave them, it will be by choice, not by accident. Finding readers is hard to do. Respect them, and do the work it takes to give them something new.
If you want to test your ability to catch cliché’s, go back through this and see how many you can find. I went through and found one very obvious one, and a few more that may or may not be cliché depending on how meticulous I want to be and how hard I want to work to make this piece original. I’m not counting the use of “outside the box” and any other cliché that I put in quotes.
Go ahead, go see how generic I was when I when I drafted this. I left them all in so you can see. Even trying to think about not using clichés, I did anyway. They are like that plastic wrap that comes on new CDs, the stuff with the static cling that you can't shake off without some effort. Go ahead and check my work, and then scroll down and compare notes with me.
Ok, if you're still with me, let's see if we agree on all of these. If you found some I missed, feel free to point them out in the comments. Here’s my list.
- Come quickly to mind (paragraph 2)
- Off the top of my head (paragraph 2)
- Coined the original phrase (paragraph 2)
- It gets stale – “stale” in general (paragraph 7)
- Told a million times (paragraph 11)
- Running across (paragraph 14)
- Nice and packaged neat (paragraph 16)
- Serves my point (paragraph 16 - I'm being picky here)
- Popping up like weeds (paragraph 16 – this is the worst of them!)
Now you may or may not agree that all of these are clichés. You may have found others beyond my list. But I want to make this one idea really clear: whether something is “technically” a cliché or not is not the point. The point is that you use good, strong language when you write. That you make careful choices in the words and phrases you put down. If something seems old to you, over-used, then it IS over-used. It doesn’t matter if I recognize it or not. If you do, then it is tired language. It might not “count” as cliché to everyone, but if it does to you, think about it and decide if you really want it in your piece. Maybe it’s fine. It very well might be. But you be in control of that. Don’t let your language be an accident.