Avoiding Cliches

It’s easier to learn from bad writing than from good writing. Good writers integrate the techniques of their craft so smoothly it’s often difficult to figure out exactly what they’ve done. It’s like enjoying a great dish prepared by a master chef – you know it’s delicious, but can’t quite figure out the ingredients or techniques he used. Bad writing, on the other hand, is easy to spot. Sloppy or incompetent techniques stick out like a sore thumb, reminding you “don’t do this.”

That last sentence, for instance. Cliche similes and metaphors snap discriminating readers out of the spell you’re casting. It taps them on the shoulder and whispers in their ear, “He’s not very good, is he?” Do it too often and that whisper becomes a shout.

The other day I started reading “The Jury Master”  by Robert Dugoni. The book was covered with blurbs praising it’s sharp writing and perfectly drawn chacacters.

The cliches started on page two.

“Steiner had a head of thinning silver hair, a smile that could melt butter…”

“The light flashed – blinding white that sent a lightning bolt of pain shooting from the base of his skull to a dagger point behind the eyes.” Wow, three Clichés in one sentence. That’s not easy to do.

For the moment her steel-blue eyes…” Could we maybe get some eyes compared to a different kind of metal?  Might I suggest aluminum?

“The vein in his neck – the one that bulged when he became angry – protruded above the collar of his starched white shirt like a swollen river.” That one isn’t a cliche. It’s just really bad. When you visualize it the proportions are ridiculous to the point of being goofy.

“He buttoned his jacket and approached the jury, but they now refused to acknowledge him and left him standing at the railing like an unwelcome relative – hoping that if they ignored him long enough he would just go away.” The “unwelcome relative” is fine. (At least he didn’t mention a red-headed stepchild). He should have stopped right there, but instead he continues on and ruins it with yet another cliche.

“They fell like dominoes…”  Come on.

“Short of living in fear, barring our doors and windows and living in cages like animals…”

That was all in chapter one. When chapter two presented me with “like finding a needle in a haystack” and “He looked like a deer caught in headlights,” I lost all interest in reading any further.

While you’re writing, in the zone and the words are just pouring out, it’s easy to slap in a cliche, intending to fix it later. Later, while editing, it’s easy to miss it or even convince yourself that it’s not all that bad. If stopping to come up with a more clever comparison will interrupt your writing flow, just insert a note for the next edit. For instance, rather than writing “he stuck out like a sore thumb,” add “he {need metaphor – out of place}” and continue writing.  If you do use an offending phrase highlight it with a colored background, which makes it easy to find and impossible to ignore.  (I use yellow for things that need to be rewritten/replaced, and pink for things that need further research.)  Sometimes your bracketed description will provide the inspiration – either now or later – for something fresher, like “he stuck out like a hillbilly at a debutante ball.”

If you have trouble inventing good metaphors and similes, just leave them out entirely. They are an optional tool. You can write well without them. Personally, I like ’em, and they usually come to me like…like…something and, um…something else. I’ll have to go back and fix that later.

9 Comment(s)

  1. nice.

    Johnny Virgil | Aug 6, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hi Dave, this sounds like a nice idea for a podcast, don’t you think?


    Marcus | Aug 7, 2011 | Reply

  3. Sorry I have to do this to you dave, but the article is about poor writing.

    “He should have stopped right there” not “He should of stopped right there”.

    I agree with your assessment though, poor writing hits me like a bullet to the brain.


    Brian Riley | Aug 8, 2011 | Reply

  4. Thanks, Brian. Fixed it. I should do a story about the importance of having an editor. No matter how closely I check I always miss something in my own writing.

    Marcus, I’ll have something for you shortly.

    Dave Hitt | Aug 8, 2011 | Reply

  5. One thing I personally can’t stand in a book is tedious over-explanation. The absolute worst I’ve come across is Charlaine Harris. If you’ve ever read the Southern Vampire Mysteries books (they’re what the show True Blood is based on, though very loosely, but I think HBO actually wrote a better story than the author), the premise is neat and fairly original (she breaks from the “vampires live among us in secret” cliche by making it so they live out in the open and everyone knows about them), but in her actual composition she is constantly reviewing what happened in the previous books. Towards the end of the series, Sookie (all the books are written in first person from her perspective–boooooring!) will literally spend entire paragraphs going over what already happened in the previous book.

    Wheel of Time is another one I can’t stand. In the entire WoT saga there are two characters: the brow-beaten, p-whipped young male character who can’t stand to be around any female character he meets, and the frigid, condescending, know-it-all female character who is constantly scowling, scolding, or straightening out the wrinkles in her dress (or tugging on her god-damned braid). Every character in the book is basically one of those two and the only thing that varies is how they look and what clothes they were (and don’t get me started on how much time the author spends describing women’s clothes, it’s like every time he mentions a dress we get a freaking history lesson on where the fabric came from and how it was made). Some people call that “immersive,” I call it literary micro-management. I can imagine a field on my own without having to have every blade of grass described to me in detail.

    Brian | Aug 8, 2011 | Reply

  6. Agreed Brian, my favorite author, Larry Niven, collaborated with Jerry Pournell on several books and I could identify every passage that was written by Jerry because it always included a 1 1/2 page description of the background. Larry would only include what was needed to get the feel for it and nothing more. Now Jerry’s technical writing is much more direct and to the point, and he is very intelligent, just too descriptive in his literary works.


    Brian Riley | Aug 8, 2011 | Reply

  7. Brians,

    My favorite piece of writing advice came from Elmore Leonard: ““I leave out the parts that people skip.” This implies you can put those parts in there for the first draft. Make it as flowery and descriptive as you like, but then cut and chop and slash and remove all but a bit of description that lets the reader fill in the rest. You don’t need to describe every book on the bookshelf. One or two titles is enough, and maybe you don’t even need that.

    One of the most trite and amateurish forms of description is to start at the top of a characters head, describing their hair, then moving down to their eyes, their nose, their cheeks, their lips, and continuing until you reach their feet. Some authors think changing the order of such a thorough description makes it better. It doesn’t. Tell us one thing, maybe two, about the person’s appearance, let us fill in the rest, and move on.

    I showed some friends an unfinished novel where there are no descriptions, not a single one, about the appearance of the main characters. I didn’t do it on purpose and when I realized it I asked them to describe the characters. They described them just as I had pictured them.

    I haven’t read the Sookie Stackhouse novels (some Blood Witness fans have recommended them to me) but did try to get through one of the Wheel of Time books. I failed. I can picture an elaborate dress, Mr. Jordan, without having to be told about every button and stitch on the damn thing. And guess what? I don’t care about all that detail. Give me just a hint of it, then let me figure out the characters by their conversations and their actions. But no, I’ve got to read three paragraphs of description of the dress and a page of room description before there’s any conversation, and then the conversation is drawn out and convoluted. By the time there’s any action I’m too bored to care. No thanks. I buy novels by the bag at library book sales, and I’ve always got a fresh one in reach. I can enjoy three of them in the time it would take me to slog through one of yours.

    As always, there are exceptions to every guideline. Pat Conroy comes to mind. He overwrites his descriptions, but they’re so damn good they just draw you in, and sometimes I found myself pausing and saying “Damn, that’s some good writing.”

    Hittman | Aug 9, 2011 | Reply

  8. “I can picture an elaborate dress, Mr. Jordan, without having to be told about every button and stitch on the damn thing. And guess what? I don’t care about all that detail. Give me just a hint of it, then let me figure out the characters by their conversations and their actions.”

    And that’s exactly it. To me, a character is far more interesting when I grow to understand what kind of a person they are based on what they say and do. When you describe every minute aspect of someone’s mannerisms and personality, it makes them boring and predictable. Nothing any character in WoT did surprised me, because I had already been briefed on their personality, so I found myself nodding along and thinking “yep, that sounds like something (insert character) would do.”

    A perfect example of a ruined surprised was the Rand-Aiel connection. Jordan could have made that a huge, jaw-dropping revelation, but instead he spent 4 books pretty much outright saying he was Aiel (he has red hair, just like the Aiel, and he’s tall, just like the Aiel, and he doesn’t look like his parents, or anyone else in the village) so when it was finally confirmed in the 5th book it wasn’t so much as an explosive reveal as a pathetic whimper.

    Brian | Aug 12, 2011 | Reply

  9. Not sure if you’re a sports fan at all, but the best sports snark I ever had the pleasure of reading was Fire Joe Morgan (http://firejoemorgan.com/), a now-defunct blog dedicated to dissecting the worst of the worst sports writing. A recurring joke was the “food metaphors” tag. If you ever want to see cliches at their worst, peruse http://tinyurl.com/3bcf2rd

    Ashley | Sep 5, 2011 | Reply

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