Tag Archives: cliches

The Complete Writer: Dogged Clichés *FREE READ*

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The Complete Writer:
The Ultimate Guide to Writing, Publishing, and Leading the Writer’s Life

Chapter 5
Dogged Clichés

The other day I had to apologize to blog readers for not posting regularly because, I explained feebly, I’d been sick as a dog. And of course, that brought to mind the issue of clichés. In specific, dog clichés!

In teaching, I often use the “raining cats and dogs” snoozer to help students figure out how to recognize a cliché: if you can say the first few words and the rest fall into line as the night the ____, you can be pretty sure it’s a cliché. So . . .

“It’s raining . . . “

“CATS AND DOGS,” they all chorus.

Harder it is to explain to them why we try to avoid cliché. They think of these bons mots as part of the language . . . and of course, when you’re eighteen a lot of old chestnuts are new to you, so you think they’re pretty catchy. Hard, too, at that age to know the difference is between cliché and jargon and between a literary allusion and a cliché (Death, where’s thy sting?).

In a larger context, the use of clichés in speaking or writing reflects a tendency to clichéd thinking. We see that in the political discourse of our time, and the effect has been exceptionally malign.

Politicians, business leaders, journalists, celebrities, and — most important — ordinary citizens no longer discern truth from lie, accident from plot, patriotism from cant, even crook from hero because we frame everything in Twittery, shallow clichés. These are short-cuts to thought: branding a statement, an idea, or a person a “lib” or a “repugnican,” “extremist” or “elitist,” “radical” or “ideologue” and on and on.

The problem with cliché is that it reflects lazy thought — or none at all.

Nothing is ever all cats or all dogs, all black or all white, all true or all false. We need to engage discourse to persuade our readers (or listeners) and to engage our audience in real, shared thought. To do that, you have to go the long way around: listen to the other side, and respond to the underlying, valid concerns that are expressed. Respond in depth, not with Tweet-lingo.

Cute turns of phrase quickly become superannuated metaphors and similes. Similarly, buzzy claims and thoughtless passion quickly turn into cant.

It’s thinking gone to the dogs…

w00t! ESCAPED from yesterday’s miasma

Managed to break free from yesterday’s craziness and finally finish Chapter 2 for the Boob Book. Not gonna rehearse today’s little triumph because it’s described in detail over here.

More of interest to the writerly set: The word count for the introduction, two chapters, and two appendices is right at 10,600.

The chapters plus the intro average 2800 words apiece. The appendices (all two of them): 1090 words each.

So, if those numbers stay consistent throughout, the 11 chapters and 5 appendices should add up to a total word count of just under 40,000 words.

That’s not very long; one would like to be closer to 80,000, for a book-length work. However, there’s a glossary — heaven only knows how long that will run. I found a large cache of definitions at a government site; ergo in the public domain. I’ll probably use most or all of those, which will inflate the word count significantly. And as we speak, I have 21 pages of references, single-spaced, set up in Chicago style. That stands at 4874 words just now.

So the references alone push the word count to around 45,000 words. If the glossary comes in at around 3,000 words (???), that would make it 48,000. Add an index, maybe another thousand words (counting numbers as words…). Hm.

Well, they say shorter is better these days, moderns not being much on reading. We shall see.

Spent this afternoon studying and outlining downloads from Kindle Unlimited, by way of building the new racy-novel enterprise.

My goodness, there’s some bad writing out there! These things are awful. Full of dangling modifiers (some of them truly hilarious), typos, unidiomatic language (“grinded”; “withering” for “writhing”; and on and on), lapses in point of view, characters dissolving pointlessly in laughter, eye-glazing clichés…

Oh, well. Clearly literature is not what people are buying the things for. 😀

A few of them do display fairly workmanlike writing, and some are even done with style and humor. But even those self-consciously deploy tried-and-true tropes. There’s quite a sameness to these things, especially where the female characters are concerned:

The female character almost invariably is said to be lonely: either she describes herself as lonely, explicitly, or some other character observes or speculates that she’s lonely.

As the story unwinds, the woman is “rescued” in some way from an unhappy relationship with a former husband/boyfriend. Male lover(s) sex is better, kinder, hotter, more positive all the way around.

Female character yearns for change or sometimes simply for an outrageous spree.

She often is described as feeling self-conscious or insecure about herself.

Attraction is immediate, as you’d expect in such short pieces – the characters lust after each other at first glance.

Men are described as “gods”

Men are often described as cooking or doing some other domestic activity; this seems to be part of his appeal or at least a repeating trope.

Hm. We’ll redact some of these other observations, lest the young, the impressionable, or the tender be reading. Suffice it to say that all the way across the board, a kind of monotony reigns.

It explains why some very, very silly things rise to the top in this genre. Like the series about the woman who gets it on with Bigfoot.

Heee! Yes. That one is said to be authored by a SAHM who home-schools the kiddies.

And that factoid also explains something. I suppose.

Write Tight! Part III: Techniques of Economical Composition and Style

Yesterday we discussed a few mechanical tricks to achieve “tight writing“: economical, readable, non-time-sucking style.

Some devices require a little more thought than the knee-jerk devices we just reviewed. These are compositional principles that you should internalize as you internalize the spelling of your own name.

Avoid the passive voice.

Verbs are words that express action, and they come in two voices, “active” and “passive.”

In the active voice, the action moves directly from the subject to the object of the action (the thing that is receiving the action). In our examples, we’ll color subjects red, verbs blue, and (when they exist) objects green:

 Joe shot the bear.

Notice that the receiver of the action here appears as the object of the verb, and the thing that is doing the action is the verb’s subject.

In the passive voice, the action moves in the opposite direction: the thing that receives the action suddenly appears as the verb’s subject, and the doer of the action is hidden in a prepositional phrase starting with “by,” which may or may not be explicitly stated. Let’s color prepositional phrases purple.

 The bear was shot [by Joe].

Because the passive voice always contains a past participle (a verbal that looks like it’s in the past tense, such as “shot”), many writers confuse it with the past tense. Remember, the way to tell whether a verb is in the passive voice is asking whether you can say the action was done by someone or something. If the phrase by xxxmakes sense, then the verb is in the passive voice.

Fix it by converting it to the active voice, unless you’re using the passive voice for a specific reason. In most circumstances, the passive voice is indirect and verbose—that’s why it’s a classic feature of bureaucratese.

 Use verbs conveying action, instead of verbs of being.

These are the verbs of being:

 am is are was were be being been

They’re perfectly fine words, and you can’t get around using them now and again. But they lack punch. Good writers make their verbs carry the weight of their sentences—and a verb of being doesn’t carry much weight. Instead of having the subject of a sentence just “be,” have it “do.”

Here’s a sentence by a real journalist:

Energetic and stimulating, Ríos is a favorite among students.

It conveys a little meaning, but overall, it’s a big Z, dull as white rice. What on earth does “stimulating” mean, anyway? And that fellow Ríos is buried in the middle of the sentence.

We could rewrite it:

 Students love the energetic and stimulating Ríos.

A little better—though insipid. The word “love” sounds too strong; it’s one of those words that have lost meaning from overuse. And the sentence still doesn’t show Ríos in action; it doesn’t show how the words “energetic” and “stimulating” define him.

My edited version—and I was perhaps guilty of going after this scribe with a heavy hand—read like this when it finally went to print:

 Ríos projects a sense of excitement and energy that charms his students.

Does it improve on the original? Maybe so; maybe not. As you can see, though, an insipid sentence inspires an insipid response in the reader, something you decidedly do not want to inspire.

Write in complete sentences. . .most of the time.

A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. It will not harm your style or bore your reader if you include a subject and a verb in every sentence.

Beginning writers seem to think it’s arty to cast their thoughts in fragments. Maybe they think it sounds dramatic.

In fact, though, sentence fragments have a function: they’re like exclamation points. They’re emphatic. Too many exclamation points make your copy sound like you’re panting.

Good writers use sentence fragments in the same way the use exclamation points: sparingly. To pepper a piece of writing with either fragments or exclamation points is bad style.

Want to be a better writer? Internalize these principles and tricks for tighter writing.Use Anglo-Saxon instead of Latinate words.

Prefer the short word to the long one. Some folks apparently believe that the more syllables a word has, the more important it sounds. Not so. Think about the most common mouth-fillers, and consider their plain-English alternatives:

numerous (many)
donation (gift)
illustrate (show)
accountability (duty)
merchandise (stock)
acquiesce (agree)
communicate (say)
conference (meeting)
indicate (say, imply)
knowledgeable (trained)
optimal (best)
restructure (change)
institute (start)

This is what happens when you lard your language with important-sounding, Latinate words:

Members of the species homo sapiens who maintain an abode within a permanent or semipermanent structure composed at least partially or wholly of vitreous, transparent material would find it sagacious to refrain from hurling projectiles of natural material.

 Figured out what this means yet?

 People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. top

 Cut the jargon.

Of AIDS, a high-ranking bureaucrat once said, “The disease has heterosexualized, proletarianized, and ruralized.” So has the plague of gobbledygook.

Jargon is mishmash language. It obscures meaning while it implies that the speaker is an insider. Don’t confuse this term with “shop talk.” Some terms that are current in specific trades and industries have real meaning and need not be translated into verbose alternatives. Doctors and nurses, for example, know what an “EMT” is, and they know what has happened when someone has administered CPR. No—we’re talking about phony shop talk, fake insider language, ersatz sophistication.

You can learn to recognize jargon, which, like computer viruses, evolves constantly. For example, suspect any word that ends in -ize or -ate:

…even concertize!

Nouns and adjectives usually convert to jargon when they surface as brand-new verbs. Thus, the word “conference” becomes jargon when it’s used as a verb: “They conferenced about the computer program.” We’ve all heard these words several times too often:

to parent
to office
to network
to obsolete

Some jargon slithers into the language from baleful sources like admanese, educationese, political doublethink, and shop talk. They buzz interestingly but don’t mean much:

fast track
dog and pony show
world class
meaningful dialogue
revolution (as in “a marketing revolution”)
experience (as in “a dining experience”)

 The word “multiple”—meaning “many” or “more than one”—has suddenly cropped up like chicken pox on a six-year-old’s belly. There is nothing wrong with the word “many.” And “more than one” is far preferable to the mumbly “multiple.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. . . .

Clichés are aging quips that have worn thin with overuse. You can usually tell if a golden phrase is hackneyed by saying the first few words aloud. If the last few follow automatically, you’ve got a cliché.

Raining cats and…
Filled to the…
Fit as a…
Sell like…

 Use specific terms, not mush words.

Everyday language is awash in words devoid of solid meaning—such as “area” and “field.” That’s not my area; he’s an expert in the field. What do these things mean? Discipline? Concern? Meadow? Say what you mean!

Watch out for words like thing, idea, situation, experience, and group, which may mean anything from the Boy Scouts to a witches’ coven.

Use the right word.

Some words sound as though they mean something other than what they do mean.

fortuitous does not mean fortunate
appraised is not apprised
revenge is not to avenge
award is not to reward
verbal is not quite the same as oral

 Shun euphemisms.

Euphemism is prettified speech that supposedly softens blunt reality (“she passed away”) or replaces frank words with allegedly acceptable language (“little girls’ room”). Don’t be crude, but don’t be nicey-nice, either. A task force is a committee, a recreation facility is a gym, and an environmental engineer in education is a school janitor. top

Cut redundancies.Any unnecessary word is redundant. In the patter of every day speech, we repeat ourselves all the time. For example:

hot water heater
close proximity
one and only
more and more
single most
free gift
sworn affidavit
completely surrounded
future plans
return again
completely unable

 This may be O.K. when you’re talking, but don’t do it in writing. You can edit the written word—and you should.

Sometimes writers indulge in larger kinds of redundancy. We may accidentally repeat a phrase, sentence, or paragraph that appeared earlier in the document. Or we may have been taught a particularly pernicious method of composition, the “Tell them what you’re going to say; say it; and tell them what you said” approach. This is plain bad writing—don’t do it. In writing (as opposed to public speaking), you need say it just once.

Avoid portmanteau sentences.

This term was coined by James Kilpatrick, after Lewis Carroll. It compares an overburdened sentence to a stuffed suitcase. Consider, for example, this astonishing example from Editor & Publisher, the trade journal of the newspaper industry—and ironically, a repository of bad writing:

Achorn suggested that women set the ground rules early and stick to them, not underestimate themselves or set their goals too low, be prepared for a certain amount of loneliness as they get to the top (it goes with the job), not carry a chip on their shoulders, take advantage of every educational and training opportunity, make sure their company has a sound policy against sexual harassment, not assume all women working with them are for them, be optimistic and not expect the workplace to solve all the problems and change cultural attitudes that have built up over the centuries.

Amazing. There was no need to recite every hackneyed aphorism the speaker uttered. But even if the advice were not trite, the sentence would still be overstuffed.

Use correct punctuation.

It’s does not mean its, and there’s no such thing as its’. Sentences slopped together with a comma instead of a conjunction or a semicolon just look…well, sloppy. Learn the difference between the plural and the possessive, and distinguish between the plural possessive and the singular possessive. You can learn these things. Get a second-hand freshman comp handbook to teach yourself details of punctuation and grammar that you might have missed in grade school, high school, or freshman composition. top


Remember to run the spellchecker as the second-to-last step in revising your work. But after that, always proofread with the brain! We’re still smarter than our computers.

Dogged Clichés

Helpful writing tip - How to recognize and avoid cliches.Haven’t been posting here loyally because I’ve been sick as a dog. Heh…which brings to mind the issue of clichés. In specific, dog clichés!

In teaching, I often use the “raining cats and dogs” snoozer to help students figure out how to recognize a cliché: if you can say the first few words and the rest fall into line as the night the ____, you can be pretty sure it’s a cliché. Sooo…

“It’s raining…
“CATS AND DOGS,” they all chorus.

Harder it is to explain to them why we try to avoid cliché (they think of these bons mots as part of the language…and of course, when you’re 18 a lot of the things are new to you and so you think they’re pretty catchy) and what the difference is between cliché and jargon and between a literary allusion and a cliché (Death, where’s thy sting?), and on and on. But I suppose teaching this stuff is neither here nor there.

Dog clichés: How many can you come up with?

Here are a few:

Crooked as a hound’s hind leg
Dog tired (why are dogs always sick and tired in these things?)
Hair of the dog that bit you (and drunk?)
Let sleeping dogs lie
He’s in the dog house
Gone to the dogs
Clean as a hound’s tooth
Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas
The dog ate my homework

It goes without ____ (uhm…I hope) that we don’t salt our copy with clichés. Better a plain turn of phrase than a superannuated metaphor or simile that jars the reader. Or puts her to sleep. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in Publishing Land. 🙄