Wednesday, 30 April 2008

No! No! It is NOT weird and wonderful!

Gripped by the dead hand of the cliché...

I am guilty of writing ‘she woke with a start’ in a first draft. ‘She melted into his arms’ really does say it all (this doesn't mean it's a good idea to use the phrase in a novel, though).

But what about clichés that are used with no thought at all? ‘Sea change’ frequently has me yelling at the radio, ‘the sea has nothing to do with it!’ The original Shakespearean metaphor in The Tempest has a point, as THE CHANGE HAPPENED UNDERWATER! But a political party changing a policy has nothing whatever to do with the sea!!!

And as for weird and wonderful, bright and breezy, chop and change, born and bred, each and every, first and foremost, fast and furious, facts and figures, fame and fortune, kith and kin (what's kith?) hale and hearty, part and parcel, prim and proper, rack and ruin, rules and regulations, safe and sound, tried and tested, trials and tribulations, vim and vigour...

All I can say is, AVOID.


  1. You're probably familiar with Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language, a must for anyone who cares about decent writing. The section on dying metaphors is most relevant here.

    Let me throw one or two more godawful cliches (how the hell do you do the acute accent?) into the mix.

    What most irritates me today, as it has done for years, is 'in terms of'. I'm a liberal -- even a libertarian -- in most matters, but this is a case in which I would favour legislation, and the return of the death penalty.

    And do you remember the days when commentators on any election of any kind were legally obliged to inform us that the voters were saying 'a plague on both your houses'?

    Then there was the 1970s -- and I'm old enough to remember them like they were only thirty years ago. There was a law at that time obliging trade union spokesmen to describe any pay offer as 'derisory'. My God, it nearly had me voting for Maggie Thatcher!

    Apart from obvious illiteracy, I'd say that the two clearest markers of bad writing are fondness for cliche, and wasting of words -- 'this is a no-no to be avoided', 'Autumn is my favourite season. I prefer it to all the others'. Someone -- possibly Orwell -- said that Dickens was a writer who never used one word where ten would do. But he said it approvingly, and he was right: Dickens was certainly prolix, but he never wasted words.

    Finally, a rap over the knuckles. I avoid 'sea change' simply because it's a cliche. You're wrong to reject it on the grounds that it's being used in a context which has nothing to do with the sea. It never has anything to do with the sea any more. Look up a dictionary. It's a metaphor -- like 'she melted into his arms'. Any fool can see that she didn't literally melt.

    That apart, I think you're doing well -- though I still say that Rising Fire isn't a great title.

  2. Hi Iain (Manson? If so, how are you doing? I saw you did well on Frontlist); to type an é, Ctr Alt e (though it's true this sometimes produces a Euro).

    My 'in terms of' is 'if you like', a verbal tic that users mistakenly believe lends their words a professorial weight.

    I can't agree about 'sea change'. Its original use was precise; these days the 'sea' is pure padding.

    How right you are about Rising Fire not being a great title. I'm currently trying to think of another. Any ideas? I'm getting to the stage where I'd pay for a good title. I'm trawling poetry, and brainstorming, and each idea is more dire than the last...

  3. Good post, Lexi. Cliches can just make writing sound sloppy at times, can't they? And there's usually a better way to say what is meant.


  4. Yes; trying to write a publishable book certainly makes one aware of flaws in one's writing.

    With me, it's word echoes, and clichés that may be peculiar to me, but that I over-use.

    My writing has sharpened up over the past two years, which has to be good.