Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A cliche by any other name would still...be deleted.

Most of the time, writers strive to eliminate cliches from our work, because they speak to a lack of original creative expression. They're generally vague and nonspecific. They seem to shout: this writer can't be bothered to write exactly what she means, so this overused hackneyed phrase will just have to do.


I DO think cliches serve a purpose, and so that's why when I'm writing a first draft, I let them fly. I'm not the sort of writer who can sit, fingers poised above keyboard, for long periods until I come up with the most interesting word or phrase -- at least not when I'm trying to get down the bones of a first draft.

I do that later.

When I'm making a first draft where none existed before, I tend to move quickly. So I write the danged cliche into the piece, and move on. And keep moving. Yeah, I know those stupid cliches have to go...but not now. Now, I'm busy getting a first draft out of my head and onto the page.

For now, that cliche is a place-holder.

Soon enough -- when I get the first draft to resemble something at least partially intelligible -- I will print it out, and grab my highlighter and mark each and every horrible cliche. (I do this for for adverbs too, but that's another blog post.)

Meanwhile, while they are still in place, I think about those cliches (figures of speech, euphemisms, etc.) and I ask myself what I really mean to say instead.

What is it I mean, precisely? When I can begin to understand and to answer that question, I can delete that horrid stale place-holder with something (I hope) more elegant, accurate and interesting.

Cliches can be a writer's friend, if only we can think of them as having found their way into our messy first drafts because they tell us something about an elemental truth we are trying to convey. They are good markers. They tell me - Hey, you over there, writer: here's a hint about what you mean to say, but egads, you can do a whole lot better than this!

I'm curious what others think. Readers, do we see eye to eye on this?


Sheila said...

Terrific! I am going to share this with my students. Thank you!

kario said...

I am so guilty of this (as you well know), and ultimately my problem is that I hate rewriting. I get so sick and tired of my own work after a while and stop having any perspective on it that I think is helpful.

That being said, I can't stand cliches when I read, so I guess I'll just have to get better at rewrites, huh? ;-)

Andrea said...

Sounds like a good process...can you share some examples of cliches you've excorcised and what brilliant turns of phrase replaced them?

Maureen Salamon said...

That's a really sane way of looking at this, Lisa. I'm more the type who will sit over the keyboard for hours -- even during that first draft -- until I can replace my cliched thought with something that's just mine.
But I think I'll do it your way next time. It will probably mean better writing overall because I haven't belabored any one part.

Lisa Romeo said...

Good question. I'll have to dig out some early drafts of a few pieces and go back to locate them.
Look for it in a future post, though I can't promise they went from cliched to "brilliant" !
- Lisa

Christina Baker Kline said...

There are also those tricky cliches that we don't recognize as cliches in the first draft. I am working on a new novel at the moment under a looming deadline, and part of what enables me to get the words on the page every day is the knowledge that the hard piecework of editing out dead language is an inevitable part of the process. That's why I cringe when people publish unfinished works by writers posthumously, and why they're usually inferior to the rest of their work. Editing is so crucial!

Jessica said...

I love this post, Lisa. I do the same thing -- let it fly and fix it later. I can so easily get slowed down by cliche avoidance, and also (now that I've reached a certain age) word-blanking, that I do anything to plow through. If I am stuck on a word -- can't access the particular one I know is perfect -- I just write XXX as a placeholder and come back later to mull over it.

Susan Bearman said...

As you know, I'm using NaNoWriMo to tune down my inner editor and just let the words fly in the first draft. Seems like sticking in a cliche during the drafting process is a good way to keep your inner editor at bay. Use them as a kind of place holder to remind yourself to go back to that point during rewrite. They cliches become cliches because there is truth behind them.

Having said that, I think it could be hysterically funny to write an entire piece using nothing but cliches. My idea copyrighted here. I know you can't copyright an idea, but I'm doing it anyway. If someone decides to steal it, well, I guess that's the way the cookie crumbles.