How to Tighten Your Writing (Part 4): Avoid clichés and strive for fresh imagery
Have you ever read a story or article where the writers is so enamoured by well-worn and tired phrases that you wonder how they ever got past the slush pile?
In the final instalment of my series on how to tighten your writing, let’s talk clichés. These boring same-old idioms have as much flair as a manilla envelope. “On a dark and stormy night”, “blinding sunshine”, “sick and tired” and so on…You know them when you read them but they can be invisible, too.
They are so overused they don’t stand out, unless they’re peppered in a paragraph so often you wonder if the writer has an original bone in his body.
Using clichés strips away the surprise and freshness a reader wants to see in a piece of writing. For example, “bitter cold” doesn’t surprise the reader but “barren cold” might, due to how we don’t often see those two words coupled together.
Cliches often come in the form of an adjective-noun combination. “Doting parents” is something I’ve seen often but that adjective doesn’t create a visual for me. I’ve seen that pairing so frequently used my mind practically skips that adjective. I can’t see “doting” in my mind’s eye. But a writer may lean towards that phrase because, well, it’s factually correct and it conveys the sentiment they intend to project onto these parents.
What successful writers should aim to do is create fresh imagery and phrasing. It takes work but all great writing takes effort. It shouldn’t be breezy.
Look at how New York poet Rachel McKibbens brings a unique image within her poem “To My Daughters I Need to Say.”
Love the love that is messy
in all its too much. The body
that rides best your body, whose mouth
saddles the naked salt of your far-gone hips,
What stood out to you? For me, it was the saddles line because I’ve never seen that verb used in that way, nor have I read “naked” and “salt” paired within an image. Originality can invigorate your writing, so don’t rely on the first adjective-noun combo that comes to mind.