Creatively Kicking Clichés to the Curb

In my last post, I described trying to write when it just wasn’t happening as “swimming in spaghetti”. A couple of people commented on that being an apt and original way of Mechanical-Pencil holding tipdescribing the experience. It also fit me because I’m Italian and could picture just how difficult it could be tangling with spaghetti.

However in my original draft I simply had “sinking in quicksand”. Quite cliché, don’t you think? I thought of changing it to “wading in Jell-O”, which was a little better. Then I came up with my own original description.

In first drafts, it’s easy as pie to allow clichés to slip in (oops). When you go back through your draft for a second time, you should avoid them like the plague (dang).Writing - poodle- cliche

As creative people, we can do better than describe over-managed offices as organizing on steroids, like-minded people as two peas in a pod, or terrible storms as raining cats and dogs. I guess that means I’ll have to retire my joke about stepping in a poodle.

If your idea is new and fresh, your narrative should be as well. Descriptions should not only be innovative, but also fit the writer’s voice or the fictional character’s dialogue. As one commenter said, sweating your similes and metaphors usually pays off. I have to agree.

The difficulty if you’re really good at coming up with creative ways of saying things is that, in time, they catch on. “Swimming in spaghetti” has already caught on at my household this week. Soon everyone is saying them and they become cliché. Then it’s back to the drawing board – um…I mean, you have to start all over again.

Are clichés normal? Sure. There are sayings we still use today that were new in Shakespeare’s days of writing. There are sayings of our grandparents that we still like tComputer hand typingo quote today. Some become so imbedded in our culture that is hard not to think of them and use them. And that’s passable in everyday conversation, but in professional speaking and writing we can do better.

In those instances, you should reinvent the hubcap. One thing you can do is take a well-known saying and give it a twist. Such as, “He is as honest as the minute is long” as a way of sarcastically describing someone you can’t trust. Those are fun, and they take people by surprise because their mind is already saying the ending instead of the twist. Even better though is coming up with an entirely new way of describing a situation, character, or place.

About a year ago, Writer’s Digest asked its editors what clichés should be retired. Here’s their list. See if you can take at least one of them and come up with an original way of describing the same thing.
Leave a comment below.

  • Avoid it like the plague
  • Dead as a door-nail
  • Take a tiger by the tailWriting - Cliches - Walnut
  • Low hanging fruit
  • If only walls could talk
  • The pot calling the kettle black
  • Think outside the box
  • Thick as thieves
  • But at the end of the day
  • Plenty of fish in the sea
  • Every dog has its day
  • Like a kid in a candy store

The moral of this post is to stop being a copy-cat. Like fish in the sea, there are plenty of words to choose from. Think outside the box, stretch your creative muscle, and strike out on your own. It’s easy to lapse into a coma and write as if you don’t have a creative bone in your body, but you’re better than that.

Aren’t you?

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18 comments on “Creatively Kicking Clichés to the Curb
  1. Even a 3-legged dog catches a squirrel sometimes.
    Jann Alexander recently posted…The Unlikely Duo for Self-ExpressionMy Profile

  2. Tim McDaniel says:

    I guess you could combine two clichés: As thick as two peas in a peapod. Or expand a cliché: I know there are plenty of fish in the sea, but dang if I ain’t lost my rod and reel.

    In my latest novel, I decided to have my characters speak ridiculous and convoluted clichés, similes and metaphors. Silly, I know, but it was a blast to write. Below is an example:

    Bulla, tears streaming down her face like a water main that has been punctured by a heavy drill manned by a city worker with a third grade education, whispered, “I’m getting wet again, love of my life, Gomie, by my vision of you standing like Poseidon, or the sun god Apollo, or even the mighty lightning thrower Zeus himself, or if not one of them, perhaps Odysseus resurrected from his corrupted grave, as you bravely stood like the statue of David lovingly sculptured by the master statue builder, Michelangelo, at the helm of your boat filled with men, women and one transgender looking to you to save their lives from the treacherous waves of the cold and castor oil dark waters off the desolate and lonely shores of Nova Scotia.”

  3. For some reason, while reading your list of clichés, especially the one about low-hanging fruit, the children’s song lyrics “Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro” came to mind. I ended up smiling.

    I agree with you that writers should have the creativity to come up with original words. Those that don’t – well, let me say that I can trust them as far as I can throw them. 🙂

  4. grassroots08 says:

    Peter, I was raised by Italians. I never did get the hand signals down, but as a Native American I could blow great smoke. Spaghetti could never got me down, since like the frog, I simply ate what bugged me. Meatballs please!

    Avoid it like the plague – I stay clear of things that tend to bite.
    Dead as a doornail – Whatever a doornail is, this thing appears just as dead.
    Take a tiger by the tail – Don’t grab either end, both are dangerous.
    Low hanging fruit – Fruit that’s within my grasp.
    If only walls could talk – If only this house could tell its own story.
    The pot calling the kettle black – Like an echo calling itself names
    Think outside the box – Maybe move those thoughts outdoors
    Thick as thieves – falling in with other felons.
    But at the end of the day – As the the sun exchanges places with the evening.
    Plenty of fish in the sea – Loads of other Lords and Ladies a leaping.
    Every dog has its day – Every fish has made its rounds
    Like a kid in a candy store – Just can’t keep his eyes and hands in his pocket.

    Cheers, Don

  5. Enjoyed your post! And I’ve never heard about the poodle/puddle so that’s a new chuckle for me.

    Some of these expressions have lost their sense; for example, thanks to modern medicine we never avoid plagues anymore. You could say, “Avoid it like the Spanish ‘flu and the odd person will know what you’re referring to. But it’s a challenge to think of something relevant to our day. Avoid it like a carcinogen? Or how about avoiding it like “car two of a three car pileup”?

    And why is a doornail any more significantly dead than a door knob or a door hinge? Since Thanksgiving is coming up, how about “dead as the turkey on a platter” or “smashed like the pumpkin in the pie”?

    Well, time flies. I must be off. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Yes, some of these have lost their usefulness. Avoid it like the bird flue? avoid it like mad cow desease? I like the “second car in a three car pile up” idea – very good. I loved the ideas for “dead a turkey on a platter” and “smashed like a pumpkin pie” too.

      Thanks for trying to think of some.

      As far as the doornail, the story goes in the days of handmade nails they were often pulled out of old wood and used again, but in heavy doors they were nailed through and bent on the end to make them more permanant. This was before screws. Since they couldn’t ever be pulled out and used again they were considered “dead”. I have a couple books and a calander on word and phrase origins, but sometimes they’re truth, and sometimes a bit of lengend. Thanks for your comment.

      Tempus fugit (Time flies/flees)

  6. Beyond cliched phrases, I tend to dislike stock characters.

    The burly African-American, the rugged silent cowboy, the beautiful young reporter, the tough detective…


    And even worse, cliched ‘high=achieving’ characters. The handsome young doctor who was also an Olympic champion and who raises thoroughbreds deserves to be kidnapped by aliens.

    Here endeth the rant.

  7. Julie Luek says:

    Good points made. It’s easy to let them slip in when they’re so much a part of our speech. You’re post is as… (ready for it?) right as rain. Thanks, as always .;)

  8. I like your style, Peter. There’s always a smile in between the lines of your posts. (Love the dog pic.)

  9. Great post, well written and wholesome.

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