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