Deadly Writing Mistake #5: Using Cliches (Part One)

A cliché is a phrase or word that has lost its original effectiveness or power from overuse. An example would be cute as a bug’s ear or dead as a doornail. What exactly do those phrases mean? Does anyone know what a doornail looks like? Have you ever seen a bug’s ear? Sure, you might never use these obvious clichés in your writing, but you might use others without knowing it. When a reader comes across a cliché, they read right past it. No image is triggered in their mind.

Why do we use clichés? Usually we reach for them when we’re in a hurry. They are on the surface of our brain and we grab for them when we’re searching for an easy description. They may even feel fresh. But if we use them too often, an editor may label us as hackneyed. Coming up with fresh similes and metaphors takes time. Some authors spend an hour trying to describe the sound of the ocean or the face of dead person. An example from P.D. James’ The Private Patient: “Rhoda Gadwyn was lying on her back, her two arms were raised awkwardly above her head, as if in a gesture of theatrical surprise.” Not only does this feel fresh, but her words trigger an image that sticks with the reader.

To avoid using clichés, learn to recognize them and cut them from your work. Below is a list of common ones.

Cliches of Comparison

As the day is long
Ate like a pig
Behaved like a lamb
Bigger than life
Black as night
Blind as a bat
Cold as ice
Cool as a cucumber
Cute as a bug’s ear
Dead as a doornail
Deep as the ocean
Drop like a hot potato
Drunk as a lord
Easy as pie
Eager beaver
Feeling your oats
Filled to the brim
Free as a bird
Free as a breeze
Fought like a tiger
Fresh as a daisy
Gentle as a lamb
Gentle breeze
Green as a gourd
Green as grass
Green with envy
Happy as a clam
Happy as a lark
Heart of gold
Hot as a firecracker
Hot as hell
Hungry as a bear
Jack of all trades
Lay low
Light as a feather
Like a flash
Like a graveyard
Like walking on eggs
Like water off a duck’s back
Naked as a jaybird
Naked as the day he/she was born
Out like a light
Please as punch
Pretty as a picture
Pure as a lily
Pure as the driven snow
Purple with anger
Quick as a flash
Quick as a mouse
Quick as a wink
Quicker than you can say Jack Robinson
Ran like deer
Silent as a tomb
Slept like a log
Sly as a fox
Smooth as glass
Snug as a bug in a rug
Sober as a judge
Soft as silk
Straight as die
Smooth as silk
Straight as an arrow
Strong as an ox
Stubborn as a mule
Sweet as honey
Sweet as sugar
Swift as a bird

Clichés of Description

Absent minded professor
Brilliant student
Brink of disaster
Briny deep
Burning question
Burst of applause
Busy executive
Calm before the storm
Cheeks like roses
Collapse of civilization
Dawn of hope
Debt of gratitude
Depths of despair
Forests of masts
Fund of knowledge
Harried housewife
Heart of gold
Impossible dream
Laurels of victory
Lips like cherries
Liquid brown eyes
Long arm of the law
Looked like a Greek god
Madonna-like face
Man of integrity
Mona Lisa smile
New horizons
Question of life or death
Remarkable technique
Rich reward
Ripe old age
Road to success
Rewards of industry
Sea of faces
Ship of state
Special occasion
Splendid achievement
Startling phenomenon
Straight and narrow
Sumptuous repast
Supreme sacrifice
Tall, dark, and handsome
Tide of events
Trials and tribulations
Ultimate goal
Unexpected turn of events
Word to the wise
Unknown factor
Unpleasant surprise
Veritable gold mind
Victor’s crown, spoils
Viselike grip

** Pat Kubia and Bob Howard, Writing Fiction, Nonfiction, and How to Publish, Reston Publishing Company, Inc., A Prentice-Hall Company (Reston Virginia, 1985), 89-90.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current month ye@r day *