Writing – Avoiding Cliches

Avoiding Cliches in Writing

Can you identify the trite, overused, and plain tired expressions in this paragraph?

John Doe had been sleeping like the dead when his alarm clock screamed like a Banshee at him. It was 1:36 P.M., and John had planned to be up bright and early that morning. His eyelids were as heavy as lead as he wracked his brain for excuses. It had been the mother of all lost weekends. Now he had to pay the piper – he’d missed school again, and the hand of doom was heavy upon his grades.

How did you do?

If you identified similes such as “like the dead,” metaphors such as “the mother of all…” and modifiers such as “bright and early” then you have a good eye for worn-out language.

How do you identify and avoid cliches?

When writing, question any comparison or image you are about to use. Cliches often sneak in the barn door (another cliche) when we try to be descriptive. Is the phrase you’re about to use one that you’ve heard frequently in casual conversation, on TV advertising? If so, it is probably a cliche or on its way there.

Instead of using stock phrases and images, be creative – but beware. Using the thesaurus has many dangers, such as misusing an synonym that doesn’t quite fit the meaning you want. Inventing your own colorful descriptions can lead you as far astray as any worn-out phrase. Finally, avoid “padding” your work with cliches. This is an effective way to increase the length of an essay, but not to increase your grades. Most teachers know cliches when they smell them.

A list of worn-out or vague phrases found in student work, and alternatives (or at least advice):

Phrase Alternative
everyday life can be cut completely or made specific. Consider: everyday life is very different for a college student and, say, a stock broker or homeless person!
in today’s society today, currently
pros and cons advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits
people which ones? Be specific.
society who is “society”? Too many alternates exist to list. Instead, be specific about which specific group of people considered
this day & age today, presently

Avoid these phrases because they are so often overused. Many of them crop up in essay-writing, too. We have added a few others to this (incomplete) list. Occasionally they have an ironic effect, or a reader might like them but usually teachers mark them as inappropriate:

all walks of life give the devil his due never a dull moment
behind the eight ball hook, line, and sinker nipped in the bud
bitter end by hook or crook patience of Job
calm before the storm in the nick of time paying the piper
checkered career in the same boat sands of time
chomping at the bit leaps and bounds selling like hot cakes
cool as a cucumber leave no stone unturned stick out like a sore

cry over spilled milk lock, stock, and barrel whirlwind tour
fall on deaf ears long arm of the law winds of change
from time immemorial march of history writing on the wall

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