Beware the Cliché!

Posted on December 22, 2014


downloadClichés permeate our everyday conversations, so it is natural for a few to pop up here and there in your writing. But be careful! Clichés are a danger to good writing. The problem many readers have with clichés is not that they are unoriginal expressions, but that they lack power and weaken your writing. Clichés rarely leave imprints on a reader’s mind. Good writing does the exact opposite:  it excites the imagination.

Take the following example: If someone says, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” we all know what the phrase means, but the words don’t conjure up any vivid imagery. When hearing the phrase you may think, “It’s raining really hard.” Instead of using a cliché and leaving your reader with the vague and uninteresting fact that it’s raining, try instead to give them a sound and a feeling. For example, describing the rain as “slashing against the windows” conveys a feeling of anger and viciousness. Now the image becomes interesting and sets a tone for the scene.

Consider Robert Browning’s poem, “Up at a Villa – Down in the City”, in which he writes, “The wild tulip, at end of its tube, blows out its great red bell/ Like a thin clear bubble of blood…” How’s that for imagery? And what a great use of simile!

Let’s take a look at three literary devices that you can use to make your writing more interesting:

  1. Synesthesia

Synesthesia refers to the blending of senses.  In writing, it is the practice of referring to more than one sense to describe an object, a feeling, or an idea. You could say the “icy wind,” for example, or you could say, the “bitter, blue wind.” Giving color to something that lacks it (the wind does not have a color) is one way to bring a perspective that is truly unique to your writing.

Consider the following example from the poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats:

“and I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”

In this example, the image of peace “dropping slow” mirrors the image of slowly falling raindrops. Peace, then, is like gentle rain that drops down from above. Pairing movement with an intangible, inanimate thing personifies “peace.”

  1. Simile

This is a very familiar and often-used literary device in which an author compares two unlike things. The overuse of simile can slow down sentences and frustrate the reader, but if simile is done well, it provides the reader with a startling and unusual perspective.

Consider the following example from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar:

“…when I took up my pen, my hand made big, jerky letters like those of a child, and the lines sloped down the page from left to right almost diagonally, as if they were loops of string lying on the paper, and someone had come along and blown them askew.” (italics mine)

Katherine Mansfield gives us the following depiction of an oil painting hanging on the wall in her short story Prelude:

“A little piano stood against the wall with yellow pleated silk let into the carved front. Above it hung an oil painting by Beryl of a cluster of surprised-looking clematis. Each flower was the size of a small saucer, with a centre like an astonished eye fringed in black.”

Simile, if done well, is extremely effective in creating captivating imagery and conveying a unique perspective.

  1. Synecdoche

Synecdoche is the practice of referring to a part of an object or idea to describe the whole. For example, you’ve probably heard of the expression, “all hands on deck,” in which “hands” is used to refer to people.

Consider another example from Yeats. The following is an excerpt from the poem “The Scholars”:

“Bald heads forgetful of their sins, / Old, learned, respectable bald heads / Edit and annotate the lines /That young men, tossing on their beds, /Rhymed out in love’s despair”

What makes synecdoche a great literary device? It allows for one aspect of an idea or object to represent the whole, and in so doing, the part becomes a symbol of the whole.

In “The Scholars,” the “bald heads” stand for the older critics, those no longer writing, no longer “tossing on their beds” like the young men. “Bald heads” is impersonal and blank, which subtly suggests that “the scholars” are themselves no longer invested, passionate, and aware. It is an implied criticism of the scholars to refer to them simply as “bald heads.”

These are just a few examples of great writing, writing that stirs the mind and challenges the reader to a new perspective. The real detriment of the cliché is that its overuse renders it meaningless. Meaningful writing comes from a distinct perspective, however strange and unusual it may be.

Eithne Amos, Writer and Editor, Asta Publications

Asta Publications has a long history of helping writers tell their stories and get published. Since 2004, Asta Publications has helped hundreds of authors bring their book concepts to life and we are ready to help you too! Our dedication to our authors is unmatched. We deliver first-class products and services that are accurate, high quality, and exceed our authors’ expectations.

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