Tip #6 Use Clichés (or clichés—the elephant in the room.)


An elephant for your room

Tip #6 in the 52 Ways Not to Get Published series

Using too many (too many being any) clichés in your writing is a foolproof way to end directly in File 13.  The use of a cliché marks you as amateur, uncreative, and unpublishable.

According to Merriam-Webster online, there are three common uses of the word cliché.  First is “a trite phrase or expression,” such as letting the cat out of the bag.  But this usage has a devious corollary: “also the idea expressed by it.”   So, once a concept has been transformed into a catchy phrase, the entire idea that inspired it becomes uninspired.  It’s a tragic phenomenon, but there you have it.

The second definition of cliché is a hackneyed theme, characterization or situation.  The Grimm brothers were infamously guilty of this kind of cliché with their repetitive demonization of stepmothers.  Yet we still love those Grimm fairy tales, as Disney’s successful reinterpretations (or misinterpretations, as some will argue) will confirm.  Then again, perhaps it was the Grimm brothers who started the cliché, which means that it is those of us who follow their lead who are guilty.

Lastly, Merriam-Webster defines cliché as “something… that has become overly familiar or commonplace.”  My past editor at the Durango Herald forbade the use of the word ‘paradigm’ in any article because he was so sick of seeing it.  In a similar vein, I am starting a campaign to deem recorded political phone calls cliché, if anyone would like to join this effort.

Yet there is an irony to clichés.  The first person to use a cliché is a genius.  The 5,032th person to use a cliché is a failed writer.  The 42nd person to use a cliché is a Douglas Adams fan.

The reason clichés are so attractive is the same reason they are so overused—they work!  If the imagery in the cliché weren’t evocative of a shared human experience, they would never be repeated and hence would never become a cliché.

Take the example of the elephant in the room.  Imagine a group of people in a small room filled with, of all things, an elephant.  Then that group of people finds a way to talk about anything but the elephant (elephant=big=difficult not to notice.) Since my imagined room is not in Africa or Asia, it also isn’t something you’d expect to find in the room.  The only reason that image has entered into the English vocabulary is because we can all identify with the experience of having a subject that is overwhelming and obvious, but no one is willing to touch it (with a ten foot pole, of course.)

The truth has to be that the publishing industry is actually invested in creating more clichés.  The only way to ensure more clichés enter our culture is to make sure no one is using the old ones.  No doubt it is a devilish conspiracy between the publishing industry and whoever is making money off of clichés (okay, I don’t know who that would be, but the point of conspiracy theories isn’t to be logical.)  As writers, we should stand against such tyranny and stand up for the maligned cliché.

Are you with me?

A challenge to my readers (all three of you): True confession, what is that one cliché you just can’t resist using, no matter how hard you try?

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