avoidingclichecutI’ve browsed a lot of poetry and flash fiction over the last few months. Often the writing is sound grammatically, with an interesting plot to go with it. Yet, as soon as I see a cliche, in all it’s vulgarity, I’m chucked, head-first, out of the narrative. It always stuns me. Cliche is so easy to avoid. The reasons cliches are cliches should be obvious: they occur consistently across all types of narrative, whether it be music, literature, art, films, so on. That means you should be able to pick them out relatively easily.

There are, of course, the usual culprits. “To think outside the box,” is unfortunately exactly what I’m telling you to do now. We use cliche because it is convenient, an easy way to propose an idea. Cliche is an excellent place for a new writer to begin, as it is a simplistic way of sharing a concept with your reader. To improve quickly, the writer must take these cliches and shake them out. What lies behind each cliche? What is it’s essence, and why is it a cliche? If you can capture these emotions behind our everyday existence, then you will succeed as a writer.

Here’s some pointers.


  • To avoid cliche, you must only take the overused idea and make it your own. It’s very simple.
  • Instead of saying the “tears ran down my face,” it would be much more interesting to invoke an emotional reaction in the reader. Instead of making the character cry, make your reader cry. Connections like this can’t be made through cliche. Our emotive reaction towards cliche has been well spent. When I read, “tears ran down my face,” I feel empty, and lost, but not because of what the character is feeling. I want to be impacted by the words, I want to be punched in the gut.
  • If you catch yourself writing a cliche, stop for a moment and think to yourself, how can I rephrase this? How can I re-imagine this? What is it that is truly making my character act, react, feel? If you can capture this, then your job is almost done.
  • Instead of saying, “tears ran down my face,” re-purpose the cliche. “Opening the book, my finger found the inscription, and I followed the sweet lines across the page, tapping, one, two, with my finger. I couldn’t hold them back. These bastard tears. I thought of the small holes the tears came from, opening wider, pinprick holes, and the tears, they dribbled.” Tears ran down my face. Only, now you can see inside the characters head. The words have character.
  • Begin with cliche, if you must, but return to it, give it thought. It can be a long process, but it’s ultimately rewarding.
  • Let your character speak to you. By using cliche you remove any chance of your character having a unique, strong voice. Instead, the voice is replaced by a chorus of a million other writers you’ve read, seen, spoken to, heard.
  • Avoid the mirrors, obvious plot twists, overwrought sentences, subjective, flowery imagery, cut down on your adverbs, slice the heads off the unnecessary adjectives, refine, trim, cut, and destroy those cliches.
  • SIMPLICITY IS EVERYTHING. Run with an idea if you want, but remember: shorter is almost always better.


My other “ON” post, “ON HATING POETRY,” discusses the importance of creative indulgence, and forgetting the rules.

12 thoughts on “ON AVOIDING CLICHÉ

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  2. Cliche’s have their uses – I think you explained as much – but mostly they’re just stand ins for what could have been something interesting said. Too often I go through a first draft and find myself ripping out cliched descriptions that I didn’t realise I had put there. You say it’s easy to avoid, and I tentatively agree with you. I just can’t help feeling that, sometimes, when you’re tired or rushing, they sneak in. Most important thing, I feel, is exactly what you said: ‘begin with cliche, if you must, but return to it, give it thought.’


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