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It’s stale, mate

February 16, 2012

From my very first, trepidatious steps into journalism at 20 it was made clear to me that clichés were bad, bad, bad, and if you ever used them you were a shit writer. Even the definition of cliché, from the Macquarie Dictionary online, reads “a trite, stereotyped expression, idea, practice, etc”. And who wants to sound trite, right?

The thing is, as a magazine subeditor in Australia, I read numerous clichés every day, and I’ve decided that while some clichés make my skin crawl (that’s not one of them), others I quite adore.

One I read today that I probably dislike more than any other is ‘people from all walks of life’. And it’s been used in an introduction to one of my articles. Aargh! Yuk. But what do you do? I certainly can’t point the finger and say, “Oh, yuck, you’ve used a cliché”, because I know I use them, too. Though I do try to limit my use of them to corkers such as ‘to hell in a hand basket’. Love that one.

Here’s what a few famous writers have reportedly said about clichés.

“I think to be oversensitive about clichés is like being oversensitive about table manners.” – Evelyn Waugh (I am fond of good table manners.)

“It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.” – Stephen Fry (Huh?!)

“The average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of clichés. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over 80 per cent of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought.” – H. L. Mencken (Ouch!)

It’s best not to get too caught up with what successful writers have to say about clichés and other such things, because as a writer you quickly learn that if you want to improve, you simply have to write, and write, and write, and write.

I can’t believe how many times I have to tell my kids the same thing: put your toys where they belong, sit properly at the table, don’t use your shirt to wipe your nose! … but it’s similar with me. Only after I’ve written my millionth cliché have I started to think, “Oh, that expression is rather stale. Perhaps I’d better change it.”

So, yes, it’s best to avoid clichés in your work, but before you can do that, you have to be conscious of what they are and when you’ve used them.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2012 23:53

    “You have to be conscious” – so very true and I know I don’t always recognise, and at other times find myself querying my use of an arrangement of words which are not clichés but in frequent use.

  2. Brett Hunt permalink
    February 17, 2012 12:39

    I know i come from the school of hard knocks so i hope i’m not the pot calling the kettle black but it seems to me that since we come from all walks of life one can’t drag the chain in the use of cliches 🙂 ;-o

  3. Brett Hunt permalink
    February 17, 2012 12:45

    PS Great blog Rachel…

  4. February 23, 2012 19:59

    I find cliche-ridden work to be hard to read. While it helps sometimes with understanding what a character is saying, it can get quite monotonous and I guess could be considered a sign of a weak writer.

    Have to love anything Stephen Fry says about language – the man knows his stuff!!

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