Avoiding Cliches in Writing
Can you identify the trite, overused, and plain tired expressions in these 2 paragraphs?
How did you do?
If you identified similes such as "like the dead," metaphors such as "keepers of the flame," and modifiers such as "bright and early" then you have a good eye for worn-out language. Sadly, many great phrases, such as "mother of all battles," are coined but quickly become overused. How many times did you get sick of hearing people say "Not!" a decade ago?
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 (that's a cliche, by the way) when we try to be descriptive. Is the phrase you're about to use one that you've heard frequently in casual conversation, newscasts, and 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. Also, 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 a paper, but not to increase your grades. Most professors know cliches when they smell them.
A list of worn-out or vague phrases found in student work, and alternates (or at least advice):
Dr. Michael Spear, in our Department of Journalism, warns his students to avoid these journalistic phrases because they are so often overused. Many of them crop up in academic writing, too. We have added a few others to this (admittedly incomplete) list. Occasionally they have an ironic effect, or a reader might like them (this writer loves "sands of time") but usually faculty members mark them as inappropriate:
Does this mean your writing must be boring?
Academic prose doesn't have to be boring. Some of the phrases in the Nietzsche example could be used:
"Epic battle" is a colorful phrase that one doesn't hear every day. Good, active verbs help too--"battle. . .waged" has much more impact than would "there is a struggle that is enacted between. . . ." See the Writer's Web materials about Adding Action to Writing for more advice.