Clichés and Their Place in Prose
by John Hayes
One thing to keep in mind about clichés is that they’re not always examples of poor writing. Quite the contrary—many of them are among the most successful words and phrases in the English—or any other—language. A cliché is any word or expression that has been used so often that it has lost its original punch or even its meaning. (clichés are also ideas, plots and stock characters that have been similarly overused, but this is too complex a subject for this introduction)
Clichés become shopworn precisely because they were originally so effective. Readers quickly forget dull, ineffective phrases, but they repeat those that are pithy, elegant or perfectly descriptive.
Shakespeare wrote some of the words that make their way into the work of mediocre writers today. From the revered playwright we get such distinctive clichés as “a tower of strength,” (Richard III), “a fool’s paradise,” (Romeo and Juliet), “milk of human kindness,” (Macbeth) and “dead as a doornail” (Henry VI, part 2).
The Bible is a widely-read classic, and many of its passages are uplifting and eloquent. And, of course, they’re among the most overused expressions in literature. Precious things are the “apple of your eye,” sinful or ignoble people “wallow in the mire,” divisive arguments create danger to civility and order because “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to name but a few among the multitude. And let the greedy beware, for “Love of money is the root of all evil.”
Modern writers have also contributed to the storehouse of clichés. Joseph Heller created a great example of the double bind with Catch-22. (To wit, a member of the Air Force could apply for exemption from bombing flights on the grounds of insanity, but the desire to avoid such missions was taken by the military as proof of sanity.) To this day, pundits and other writers call such dilemmas “a Catch 22.” Chuck Palahniuk introduced a powerful modern meme with his novel Fight Club. The rules of Fight Club are a wonderful refrain throughout the book, as well as a structural device for the narrative. But no words have been more often parroted than “The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” Take anything with a layer of secrecy, or even privacy, and do a simple substitution, and you have the formula for hackneyed columns by newspaper columnists and feeble parodists. What was once hip is now hopelessly lame.
Some clichés have been so often overused, their origins are hard to trace. “One and only,” “last but not least,” “out of the clear blue sky,” “safe and sound,” and “one and only” come to mind. These are dreadfully banal—since they’re so often said in conversation, they cause the reader’s mind to wander.
Good writers have occasionally hammered out variations that give clichés new life. E.M. Forster satirized the shortcomings of the British political system with his book Two Cheers for Democracy. More recently indie writer Rachel Thompson put new heels on a shopworn phrase with her hit book A Walk in the Snark. In his excellent manual Writing to Be Read, Ken Macrorie describes challenging his students to play creatively with clichés. A high school writer wrote, “I felt like something that dragged in the cat.”
It’s probably impossible over the course of a writing career to avoid every cliché. Some writers have used them cleverly enough to make them original again. Take Lincoln’s use of the above cited Biblical cliché in the Gettysburg Address. When he used the phrase “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” it was apt for the state of the United States at the time and well-suited to an audience predominately made up of people who often listened to sermons. In 1998, Joyce Carol Oates used a well-worn phrase from Edgar Allen Poe for the title of her book My Heart Laid Bare. Her sense of irony, combined with unforgettable characters, satisfied her readers and earned her critical acclaim.
But these are exceptions. In most cases, using clichés is simply lazy writing. The writer substitutes the worn-out phrase for original thought. He or she ducks the hard work of writing by borrowing someone else’s perceptions. Examine the world around you and write down your own feelings about fear, horror, happiness or triumph. When you experience strong feelings, write your sensations or impressions in a journal or notebook. You may have to reject certain expressions, even if you do feel them, because readers don’t respond to them anymore. You may have indeed felt “cold shivers up your back” in a scary situation, but readers will still see those words as a cliché, because every second-rate Gothic writer since the 1790s has grabbed the phrase.
So you may rework clichés, you may get by with using them on occasion, and you may even come up with an ingenious variation, but in most cases they drag down your writing. The best rule to keep in mind is that offered in “Great Rules of Writing” by William Safire: “Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”