Replace dead language with vibrant figures of speech
In 1832, French printers noted the sound metal plates made when they were cast from the original and then used to make copies:
Or, in French
Fifty-some years later, somebody borrowed that jargon to refer to phrases that sounded as if they’d been copied from something else. And that’s where the word “cliché” comes from.
Clichés make your writing sound like copies of copies of someone else’s original language.
That’s lazy writing. Writers should avoid common clichés in writing.
Don’t let your writing be a copy: Substitute original metaphors for overused clichés.
Why avoid clichés?
“Words have power; the words strung together in clichés have lost some or all of their power. Clichés are a sign of a mind at rest. Writing is work. Your job as a writer is to suck people into your world.”
— Sol Stein, author, playwright, poet, editor and publisher, in Dialogue for Writers
Why substitute vivid metaphors for worn-out clichés?
- Through time and overuse, clichés have become old, tired and worn-out. “Some writers still imagine that ‘Where’s the beef?’ has resonance,” says John Early McIntyre, ACES president and assistant managing editor for the copydesk at the Baltimore Sun. And don’t you want to shake writers who still use “Build it, and they will come”?
- Some clichés have become meaningless. “Repeats like a broken record,” for instance, doesn’t mean anything to audiences born after 1980 who were raised on streaming audio.
- A cliché is something we say without thinking … so how could it help our audience members think any differently about our topic?
Many clichés started out as “similes (hard as nails, like taking candy from a baby), metaphors (the mother of all battles, a web of lies), or analogies (throw the baby out with the bathwater, up the creek without a paddle),” write the editors of Publication Management magazine.
That makes these comparisons the perfect substitute for clichés.
Avoid literary taxidermy.
Or, here’s another way to look at it: Clichés are dead language.
Here’s how Bert O. States, professor emeritus of Dramatic Arts at the University of California, Santa Barbara, puts it:
“When metaphors die … they become idioms: idioms being what we know so well that we see straight through it, as Shakespeare’s ‘Not a mouse stirring.’ Indeed, as Francis Sparshott has put it, ‘a language is nothing but a necropolis of dead metaphors.’ Or, as Stanislaw Lec, another aphorist, put it, ‘In the beginning there was the Word — at the end, just the Cliché.’”
If clichés are dead language, then writing with clichés is a form of literary taxidermy.
We writers keep propping up lifeless phrases, pretending they can live forever, however stinky and disgusting their corpses get. Still, we keep displaying their remains, sometimes for centuries after they’ve passed away.
Does it paint a picture?
Take the phrase:
He got the sack.
He got sacked.
Today, we use it to mean “he lost his job” or “he got fired.”
Do you see a sack? Probably not.
And that’s one test for a cliché in writing: Analogies are meant to bring your message to life by painting pictures in your readers’ minds.
No picture? No analogy.
You need to refresh the phrase.
The reason you don’t see a sack is that the phrase “to get the sack,” according to Charles Earle Funk’s A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions, goes back to the Middle Ages, when it referred to the ancient Roman punishment of stuffing condemned people into sacks and throwing them into the river to drown.
Anyone who’s ever lost a job knows that is exactly what it feels like. So “to get the sack” was a fabulous metaphor — when Roman officials actually stuffed people into sacks and threw them in the river to drown.
But now that we don’t practice that custom any more, the metaphor has lost the power and meaning of the original. It has become a cliché.
If we don’t do it literally any more, we can’t do it literarily any more.
If we don’t really stuff people into sacks and throw them in the river to drown, we shouldn’t refer to that custom in a metaphor.
Substitute metaphors for clichés.
The good news is, metaphors make the perfect substitutes for clichés. That’s because most clichés were once fresh, exciting metaphors.
Through time and overuse, though, they’ve become old, tired and worn out.
Bury your literary corpses. Replace your taxidermied phrases with living, breathing metaphors.
Sources: Curt Hazlett, “Become an Inventor of Fresh Language: Avoid Clichés,” BusinessJournalism.org, May 30, 2007
Bert O. States, “Troping Through Proverbia,” The American Scholar, September 2001
“Take my cliché — please,” Publications Management, July 2007
Ann Wylie, Make Magic With Metaphor, Wylie Communications Inc., 2004
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