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The best way to avoid writing cliches (like the plague)

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Avoid Writing Cliches
I know you know that you should avoid writing cliches.* They sound cheesy, unoriginal, and just plain silly. There is one popular song that is so filled with clichés I can’t even stand to listen to it. Seriously, every time Katy Perry’s “Roar” song comes on the radio in my car, I have to change the station. Just read the lyrics (I removed 90% of the “Oh oh oh” phrases):

“Roar”
by Katy Perry

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sit quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

You held me down, but I got up (HEY!)
Already brushing off the dust
You hear my voice, you hear that sound
Like thunder gonna shake the ground
You held me down, but I got up (HEY!)
Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough
I see it all, I see it now

[Chorus]
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
Oh oh oh oh oh oh
You’re gonna hear me roar

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

(Repeat ad nasuem.)

The thing about clichés is that they don’t really tell you anything. They make the reader guess what you’re trying to say. So, Katy sings about how she was “scared to rock the boat.” Does that mean she didn’t voice her opinions in confrontational situations? Was there a particular confrontation, when she intentionally said nothing because she was afraid to upset the other person? It would be much more powerful (and specific) to tell a story of a particular scene, rather than say, “I was scared to rock the boat.” We have some idea of what she means, but we’re mostly just guessing.

But, to give Katy a little credit, it’s just so darn easy to rely on clichés. They roll off the tongue and flow out of our fingertips before we can even catch them. (“Roll off the tongue.” See? So easy.)

Before we know it, we’re writing about how we were stuck between a rock and a hard place, but we put our tails between our legs, made lemonade out of lemons, and knew that time would heal all wounds.

???

Exactly.

We use clichés when we aren’t sure exactly what to say, but the cliché basically gets the point across. Unfortunately, clichés are so sticky that once you get one in your head, your mind keeps circling back to it, and you can’t think of a better way to say what you’re trying to say. Soon, you convince yourself that the cliché is the best way to describe what you mean. Let me show you how to stop a cliché in its tracks, before it burrows its way into your writing.

Here’s an easy exercise to avoid using a cliché.

First, be aware of which phrases are cliché.

If a phrase (jumps out at you) surfaces immediately in your mind and sounds oddly familiar, it might be a cliché. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list, if you want to double-check: http://www.clichelist.net/. Be careful not to read through this whole list just before you start a writing session. Those little buggers will stick around in your head for hours.

Second, isolate the phrase, and do a 1-3 minute free writing session around just that phrase.

Open a new Word document (or stickie or Evernote) and copy/paste that cliché into the blank space. Set a timer for 1, 2, or 3 minutes. Just start writing an explanation of what you’re trying to convey. Type as fast as you can. Don’t stop typing, even if you keep repeating “umm umm umm” or the same phrase over again. Try talking to yourself, asking, “What am I trying to say again?” Keep typing as fast as you can. The magic will happen, have faith.

I’ll give you an example. This is a 100% transparent, true life example of me getting around a cliché in my own writing. Please DO try this at home!

“Without an accountability partner, your book will be dead in the water.”

“dead in the water” – 3 minutes. Go.

What exactly am I trying to say here? What does it look like when something is dead in the water? I’m imagining a fish, floating belly up. And the water isn’t moving. Like the fish is supposed to be swimming, that’s its natural state, swimming down the river, effortlessly, without worry about whether it’s moving or not. That’s what writing a book should feel like. This idea, this momentum, carrying you forward like a current. So when I’m thinking about dead in the water, im thinking about an unnatural state of cessation. Okay that’s interesting and I haven’t even talked about that in my book outline. Rememer that for later! But, wait, back to the whole idea that without an accountability partner, your book is… what what what… do ellipses count as continuing to write? Yeah, I guess so. Without an accountability partner, you won’t make progress, your natural state of flow will cease, you’ll make some progress and then you’ll just suddenly float belly up. Yes, that’s how it feels. It’s sudden death. Sudden cessation. Instant loss of momentum and no way to pick back up. Beacuse you’re dead. Okay, I can work with this. Without and accountability partner, you may be able to keep up progress on your own for a few days or a few weeks. You’ll feel like you’re in a state of flow, that you can do it all on your own. But one morning at 5am, your alarm clock will go off, and you’ll find that you are suddenly in a dry patch, with no flow, like a fish flopping in a dry creek bed, with no way back into the stream of productivity. An accountability partner is the only person who will know that you are stranded and in need of help. Your accountability partner is the only person who can remind you where your flow is. Without an accountability partner, your book idea will remain in a dried creek bed, never to be completed or read by another soul. An accountability partner could be the only reason you continue writing your book, and eventually publish it. Please do not underestimate the importance of finding an accountability partner.

(The above example is true to form. There are typos and grammar errors. Normally, I love it when you let me know of an error in my posts, so I can fix it, but please don’t point out errors from the above passage to me in the comments. They’re there for transparency’s sake. :)

Third: Take your free writing and pull out any phrases that strike you as useful in describing what you’re trying to explain.

Original: “Without an accountability partner, your book will be dead in the water.”

Revised: “You will absolutely need an accountability partner as you’re writing your book. True, you probably could keep up progress on your own for a few weeks, and you may even reach a point where you feel like you’re in a state of flow, that you can do it all on your own. But one morning at 5am, your alarm clock will go off, and you’ll find that you are suddenly in a dry patch, with no flow, like a fish flopping in a dry creek bed. You’ll have no way back into the stream of productivity on your own. An accountability partner is the only person who will know that you are stranded and in need of help – the only person who can remind you where your flow is. Without an accountability partner, your book idea will remain in a dried creek bed, never to be completed or read by another soul. An accountability partner could be the only reason you continue writing your book, and eventually publish it.”

Now, isn’t that discussion a heck of a lot richer and more in-depth than the cliché version?

Take-home lesson: Within the belly of every cliché is a rich, worthwhile discussion that is begging for your original words.

What clichés do you struggle with?

Give this exercise a try, and let me know how it goes for you!

*Note: If you’re the type to be bothered by accent consistency, you may have noticed that I don’t have the accent on “cliché” in the title or first sentence. Google and I had an SEO battle, and Google won. If I want a chance in hell at people Googling “avoid cliches” and finding this page, I had to omit the accent in the title and first sentence. Because what are the odds that someone would type “avoid clichés” in Google? Yep, pretty much zero. So, I sold my soul to Google. I’m sorry, and I hope you can forgive me.

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