If I am guilty of pure evil, it’s because of the following habit:
Whenever I host webinars, I teach attendees at least one specific writing technique. Then, I force them to practice what they JUST learned, in front of their peers. Then, I critique submissions.
Each time, there is nearly a full minute of awkward silence.
Then the words roll in.
Normally, responses are original but flawed. People understand the idea of a simile (which is a comparison of two things using the word “like” or “as”), but they’re not quite nailing the execution.
Here’s an example of that, from one class:
“Catholicism's guilt trip is like saying you burnt your toast so now you have to reroof your house.”
If it took you a couple seconds to understand that, you aren’t alone. There’s too big of a cognitive gap between the words “toast” and “roof.” You might eventually get it, but it probably wouldn’t hit home.
A couple weeks ago, though, one student did nail the exercise, though.
Perfect structure. Perfect execution. But my brain threw up a major red flag. Based on the header of this email, I’ll bet you can guess what it is.
First, here’s the sentence:
“Listening to him sing was like nails on a chalkboard.”
This is a cliche.
A cliche is a group of words that has been used so many times that it no longer holds meaning for the reader. Phrases like “sharp as a tack,” “thick as thieves,” or “hit me like a ton of bricks” were once been powerful imagery. Now they slide past our consciousness like dead fish flung across a sheet of ice.
I like how neuroscientist Steven Pinker describes the effect in his book, Sense of Style:
“Like an actor with wooden delivery, a writer who relies on canned verbal formulas will break the spell (of reading).”
(Probably I like this description because the word “spell” invokes my inner Ravenclaw and reminds me that although my Hogwarts letter never came, I can still make magic with words. Wit beyond measure and all that.)
To write a cliche is to take the easy road to a finished piece of writing, without considering whether the words you’ve chosen are actually the most accurate or interesting way to describe the topic at hand. Lazy writing.
Who cares? Why does this matter?
It matters because the point of writing is to transfer a feeling to your reader. You want them to know how passionate you are about climate change, or red panda bears or… I don’t know. Lamps.
Cliches, by definition, have no feelings attached. They’ve been neutralized by overuse.
Weeding out cliches in your writing is a discipline, much like picking odd nouns or quirky adjectives. It’s not something that comes easy. Crushing cliches is a task for the second or third draft of your work.
Truly, you must go the extra mile, climb every mountain, and leave no stone unturned, until your writing is as good as it gets.
Enough of that.
If you’re interested in learning to avoid cliches, and you want to arm yourself with a couple other go-to techniques for writing better, you’ll want to join my next webinar.
I’m particularly excited about the idea of “dynamic range” in writing.
(Big time nerd stuff.)
Much love as always,
-Todd B from Tennessee