If it seems too familiar, it is
As they walked along the shore, the sky above as blue as a robin’s egg and filled with clouds like cotton balls, waves lapping the sand beside them, she slipped her delicate hand in his. He turned his darkly-handsome head and beamed down upon her like sunshine. Her lips were like rose petals, and he longed to ravish her right then and there and the devil take the consequences. She felt faint with desire, and the wise words of her grandfather echoed in her ears: “Remember, my child, the world belongs to the brave at heart, you get what you pay for, and a rolling stone gathers no moss.”
What’s wrong with this writing? It reeks with the all-too-familiar phrase, with the worn-out metaphor, with clichés—expressions that were once clever and delightfully fresh but through heavy overuse have become trite or stereotypical. You know many such worn-out expressions: the silvery path of moonlight on water, bird in the hand, fit the bill, just the ticket, far cry, labor of love, cute as a button, good as gold, old as time, babe in the woods, better late than never, worst nightmare, we need to move forward, take the bull by the horns, the time has come, we are committed, neat as a pin, undying love, quick as lightning, tongue in cheek, ugly as sin, all talk and no action, oh . . . my . . . god. And how many thousand times have you heard the word awesome used so far this year to describe everything from a double rainbow to a fried Twinkie?
Travel brochures, company mission statements, news casts, and political speeches are littered with such tattered stuff. It’s one of the worst symptoms of lazy thinking and lazy writing.
Many clichés we see so often in bad writing are not even true. Do gunshots really “ring out”? I’ve never heard a shot do so, and I’ve spent many hours at target ranges firing both long guns and hand guns. A gunshot is a harsh, percussive, jolting insult to the hearing, like being clapped on both ears by a ninja. A gunshot does not ring out like a door chime.
If you want your writing to be fresh and realistic and engaging, invest the time required to study your surroundings until you can describe them in original ways. Go to the seashore or go outside on a moonlit night and sit and look and listen. Discard those clichés that come so easily to mind and replace them with your own words, with descriptions you’ve never heard before. Study people the same way. Mentally record their features and mannerisms. Listen to their speech. This will soon become habitual. Your writing will improve considerably, and as a pleasantly surprising secondary benefit, you’ll also see the world as you never have before.
Years ago, I began to experience the world around me in wonderful new depth and clarity when I began taking photos to accompany my magazine articles, because in order to take quality photos, I had to become aware of light in all its nuances. I had to begin sensing optimum composition. I needed to learn how to recognize and capture the most intense and poignant and interesting candid moments in people’s lives. Observation is a valuable learned skill that I believe has helped enrich both my nonfiction and fiction. My readers will be the judges.
There’s a true story that’s instructive. A writer was once assigned to interview the great John D. MacDonald (the late popular author of the Travis McGee series and one of my early idols). But when the writer came away from the interview, he realized that MacDonald had actually learned far more about the writer than the writer had learned about the intended interviewee. One of MacDonald’s honed assets was to ceaselessly study the world around him until he gained fresh perspectives, which showed in his writing and helped earn him a wide and loyal readership.
So, here’s a cardinal rule: If a phrase feels too familiar, it is.
Don’t use clichés.