By Daniel Boyko and Maya Nalawade
Ignorance is bliss. Better safe than sorry. Play your cards right. A fish out of water. What do all of these have in common? They all fail miserably at avoiding the cliché! In fact, these are some of the worst of the bunch (that last one actually hurt). So, how can you stop yourself from writing like this and start writing with your own trains of thought? Get creative with thinking outside the box (maybe start thinking outside the “circle”—that’s a joke), and present your real thoughts about a topic onto the page.
First off, what actually is a cliché? More people than you would think simply assume that a cliché is a boring idea that is constantly used. That isn’t too far from its real definition. A cliché is an idea that has been used so repetitively in the past that it has lost any sense of originality. You know how the line or phrase is going to end from just a few words—that’s how expected it is. However, one of the most underrated aspects of the cliché is the simple fact that a phrasing wasn’t always a cliché. There was a time when the idea of “ignorance” being “bliss” was a powerful phrasing and a profound way of looking at the world; the idea of being left in the dark (another cliché) was seen as better than knowing more knowledge. This was actually such a meaningful and intriguing idea for society that it worked its way through several different mediums, including several genres of writing—poetry, fiction, and cinema to just name a few—and into culture itself. It didn’t start out as a cliché that was seen as bad writing; it became that way through repetitive use. Clichés aren’t inherently bad per se, but they definitely receive a poor reputation and are something you want to omit from your writing.
To avoid this, the main philosophy is to be “original.” Don’t write or say what other people have said; write and say your thoughts. That’s quite possibly the best way to generate a voice in writing and the best way to ensure that your writing is meaningful, is original, and will captivate the reader’s attention. Give the writer a description that only you could give. That’s what people want to read and see: you and your voice. They don’t want you to say, “Never give up” or “No guts, no glory.” Instead, they want you to write how you genuinely feel about a topic or a description. For instance, let’s look at some examples:
White as a cloud.
White as a Maltipoo fresh from a haircut.
Which one sounds more unique? More original?
It’s clearly the second one—and not just because it involves a cute visual of a dog. No one wants to hear how something is as “white as a cloud” because they have already heard that a thousand times over. On the other hand, the second description is definitely something not commonly used. It’s certainly a unique description that I’m guessing you haven’t heard before, and it both A) let’s you know that I like dogs (and I will not apologize!) and B) provides an instant image in your head of a dog getting a haircut. While it depends on the piece, that second characteristic of a dog visual could also be used to cement a lighthearted tone or emphasize the narrator’s sincerity. Again, those are qualities that absolutely no one is contriving from just hearing “white as a cloud.” It tells you nothing about a specific detail, tells nothing about the writer, and is overall a very boring description that does nothing to liven up your piece. This is what we want to avoid.
Bringing us back to how to be original, try to write with your own style. For some, that means using all lowercase, like Polyphony Lit’s co-founder and managing editor, billy lombardo (as the superb “Lombardo’s Love for lowercase” so astutely notes), but for those nervous about taking on such a bold choice, the first step is replacing clichés with original thoughts. Don’t worry about being the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or the next John Steinbeck or even the next billy lombardo, be the first person that writes like you. There’s no other way to really put it: it’s your unique piece. Whatever you might try to visualize, that’s what you should put onto the page. Was something really as “black as night,” or were there tinges of phthalo and cobalt blue immersed within that made it feel like Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night?” Did a character really want to “wing it,” or was the character so unprepared that it was like going into an AP exam without ever opening a textbook? Was a moment really just “the tip of the iceberg,” or was it like discovering the first person with a global disease, aka COVID-19?
Now, to clarify, this doesn’t mean that you have to replace a cliché with an original thought every time. After a while, unique spins on common ideas can begin to feel just as overwhelming and as stale as a group of clichés grouped together, such as the start to this post. Coherence shouldn’t be traded for originality; a noncoherent piece is just as poor with clichés as it is without. Often when it comes to replacing these phrasings, consider the idea that (excuse the cliché) less is more. Use creative wordings sparingly so that they carry more weight and substance. Moreover, attempt to connect your original thoughts in some way, either through tone, subject matter, or even the manner in which it is written.
Going back to the first set of examples, to continue with that tone and subject matter, instead of saying, “she was like the black sheep of the family,” I might replace that with, “she was like a Toy Poodle among German Shepherds.”
This A) continues the inclusion of dogs in the descriptions (again, I will not apologize!) and gives an indication of my personality and B) continues to use the same lighthearted tone implemented originally. As a result, it uses the same subject matter, same tone, and helps to add a sense of cohesion to whatever you’re writing.
Clichés are something that almost everyone wants to avoid. Boring, unoriginal, and completely stale—reading one is like smelling a wet chocolate Labrador Retriever going a month without a bath. It just stinks. Remember how bored you felt reading the introduction to this piece? That’s how clichés read, and that’s why you want to work hard to not resort to them. But by being original and creative, replacing clichés with your own ideas, and even devising your own style, you’ll start to be able to highlight your genuine thoughts. If that means making more similes about dogs, absolutely go for it! Let’s start writing less about “clouds” being “white” and more about Maltipoos getting haircuts… Think you’re up for it?
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Maya Nalawade is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.