Why You Should (or Shouldn't) Use Cliches in Your Writing

Michael Burg, MD

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Avoid clichés!

“Avoid clichés!” commanded my creative writing professor after reviewing one of my literary ditties.

She was brilliant. A visiting lecturer from a famous writing dynasty, published — in spades, well-spoken and insightful, she was my first creative nonfiction instructor in my — humbler — MFA program. Her high forehead bespoke intelligence; and her grey mane, coifed just so, reinforced the image. In short, smart as a whip. She spoke, and I listened. Or perhaps, when she said “jump,” I asked, “how high?” She was after all, casting pearls of wisdom before me (hopefully not before swine). I fell for them… hook, line and sinker. From that moment on, not only was I cliché-avoidant but when clichés appeared in the work of others, I’d underline them and caret in “cliché.” We do that for others in creative writing classes. We “workshop” work, providing feedback, improving the work of others. So, for forever and a day, I avoided clichés, like the plague.

Rules are made to be broken

However, slightly further on down the road, I learned of an exemption to the “avoid clichés!” word from on high. I guess that would be the exception that proves the rule. It’s acceptable to use clichés in dialogue because people speak in clichés. They also speak in tongues and riddles, but that’s another story. So, as it turns out, rules are made to be broken.

Words of wisdom

Much earlier in my college career, another prof had informed me, “Nothing good is ever written, only rewritten.” That was his unwritten law. When I first heard the phrase, it spoke — or perhaps sang — to me. “Nothing good is ever written, only rewritten.” Tra la, tra la. I had a song in my soul. And, I took his words of wisdom to heart, and to the bank. But now, I think the guy had a hidden agenda. He wanted me to work like a dog over my essays, writing and rewriting, with my nose to the grindstone, wringing out the last drops of my creative juice, my shoulder to the wheel.

Unwritten rules

Since that time, I’ve written (and not always rewritten) a thousand and one things. Some of it passes muster. During the rewrite process, some stuff, written but not rewritten, stands. It passes the test of time. Even editors leave some of my lines well enough alone. They must be good as gold, those written-but-not-rewritten words. They’re at least good enough for government work. Or, am I just blowing smoke and leaping to that conclusion? Had my prof written down his unwritten rule, maybe I’d now think, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Besides who died and made him king?

In my humble opinion

There are lots of rules, in writing and further afield. Some are great, written on stone tablets as it were. At the end of the day and in my humble opinion, “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the g.o.a.t. I’d give my right arm to have coined that turn of phrase. “No right turns on red” is iffy as the day is long, at best. I couldn’t give a hoot. Many apparently agree with me since drivers run red lights like they’re not even there, a dime a dozen. “Avoid clichés” (except in dialogue) is six of one half dozen of the other. I can take it or leave it. It’s no skin off my nose or sweat off my back.

Turning the writing world on its head

So, why is it that people speak in clichés, and we can quote them on that, but we can’t use them in writing otherwise? I’d like to turn the writing world on its head and carefully consider the issue, give it its due, examine it, like a bug under a microscope. I’m drawn to the issue of writing rules, like a moth to a flame.

Clichés, and by extension, idioms, chestnuts, platitudes, turns of phrase and so on and so forth, are the trollops of writing, round at the heels, literary pushovers. The smell of wine and cheap perfume lingers after they leave the stage. It is said that no one owns clichés. In other words, when everyone owns it, no one owns it. Perhaps that is why the man in the street uses clichés so freely, and frequently, when he/she speaks. But, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You only get what you pay for. And, as we all know, talk is cheap. True, clichés are just out there drifting about, waiting to be picked up and used, by every Tom, Dick and Harry. No clever or constructive thought is required, no assembly required either. But conversing, like writing, is tiring. Think of all the writers you know (and speakers too, if truth be told) who need a little pick-me-up after a strenuous hour or two of sitting and typing (or sitting and flapping their gums). Imagine if you will, you’re hollerin’ at your homies or even holding court, and your energy flags. Just toss in a cliché or two and move on down the road. Everyone within earshot will pick up what you’re putting down. There really is nothing new under the sun.

As easy as pie

And, why shouldn’t it be as easy as pie for writers too. Surely not every sentence has to be an independently-created masterpiece, a Michelangelo. Can’t some just be stock phrases? We’d all understand them. The story they’re trying to tell would move along, seamlessly. Later, we could return to all the creative mumbo jumbo.

Let your fertile imagination run wild over this scenario … you’re merrily hunting and pecking at the computer and you’re hit with a bolt from the blue, an idea for a Shootout at the OK Corral between business competitors. But, and more’s the pity, it’s been 40 years in the desert since your last sustenance. Your creative needle is on empty. You’d like to fully flesh out the dustup and power struggle, but you can’t find the strength. Go cliché! They speak volumes.

Imagine too, the difficulty of expressing the full series of thoughts behind the simple query, “Who died and made you king?” First, there’s the implication that the person at whom you’re directing the question is behaving in an imperial manner, like the King of the Jungle or the lord of the manor. Then, there’s the implicit power vacuum, “who died?” and subsequent power grab suggested by “and made you.” Also, there’s a whiff of “how dare you?” connoted by the entire question. Finally, “Who died and made you king?” is ironic, isn’t it (ironic, that is)? Even singer/songwriters, supposedly descended from poets, can’t tell when something is ironic. Isn’t that ironic?

Bringing it in for a soft landing

And in conclusion, imagine me, a simple-minded writer, trying to explain irony or my thoughts on clichés to anyone? I’m lost, like a babe in the woods, even trying to bring this essay in for a soft landing. I’m going to plead the fifth, write phrases like “Who died and made you king?” and leave it at that. I’ve given it 110% and left it all on the field.

The bottom line, clichés are literary shorthand. Don’t beat The King’s English like a rented mule. It can only do what it can do. In the end, and at the present time, you can’t get blood from a stone. Writers of the world unite! Use clichés, the opium of the masses!

There, I’ve said it. I said what I meant; and I meant what I said. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it!

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San Luis Obispo, CA
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