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Clichés may plague your writing and you’re not even aware of it. The problem with clichés is that they’re often not noticeable. Writers think they’d know one because it’s obvious. They think of things like:

“She thanked her lucky stars.”

“He had a heart of gold.”

 They’d never use one of those tired old expressions! But new clichés are being made all the time:

“Dealt a savage blow.”

“Sorely mistaken.”

“Grim determination.”

“Dripping with sarcasm.”

All of these are clichés, and all of them are in frequent use in fiction. The faster you write, the more likely you are to reach for a cliché as a shortcut. Readers don’t engage with clichés, and too many can make writing seem tired and boring. Remember though, that clichés are overused because they work well. That is, most clichés were originally very good ideas. But like a rock being rolled around in the sea, it eventually loses its texture and becomes smooth (which is why they often go unnoticed).

Rather than being bad in a manuscript, they’re just a lost opportunity.

In this fortnight’s lesson, through a series of audio, lessons and exercises, we will examine how to identify a cliché and what strategies you can use to get your point across without one.


TOPIC ONE: Clichés – An Audio From Kim


Listen or download the audio for this section here!

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TOPIC TWO: How To Identify A Cliché

The word ‘cliché’ is a past participle of the French word ‘clicher’ which means to stereotype. It’s actually an onomatopoeic word; it’s the sound made when a matrix is dropped into molten metal to make a stereotype plate.

The first challenge is to train yourself to identify a cliché. This is the hard part because we’ve seen so many go by us so often. But a general rule of thumb is it’s usually figurative. For example, “Sorely mistaken.” Mistakes are not usually physically painful, so this phrase adds the idea of metaphorical physical pain to a mistake. It’s a way of intensifying the mistaken-ness.

Often the best way to identify a cliché, though, is simply to ask yourself if this collection of words has appeared together in this order many times before. It can be a bit terrifying at first… “What is cliché? Is my whole manuscript cliché? I can’t say anything original anymore!”

Just push through that feeling. You’ll eventually be able to start telling a real cliché from a commonly used phrase which is doing a workman-like job in your manuscript.


TOPIC THREE: How To Replace Or Remove A Cliché  

It can help to think back to the original sentiment of the cliché. Ask yourself, what was originally interesting or fresh about it? Can you write that idea in a different way?

For example, say your character is an opera singer who’s had, “Glowing reviews,” for her performance. The idea is that the reviews contain so much praise they emit light.  It’s quite a cool idea, so there’s no reason you can’t use the idea to create something like it. Can you reconfigure it somehow? For example:

“Reviews that are bright enough to read by.”

Or perhaps you don’t need the cliché at all; you might not want to draw that much attention to something which is a side detail. Maybe you need to say, “She had good reviews,” or, “Excellent reviews.” So another option is to scale the cliché back to literality.

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TOPIC FOUR: When Is It Okay To Use A Cliché?

Remember, some clichés are so time-honoured that they can continue in use without anyone noticing or being bothered by it. They’ve become almost as invisible as if they were literal. The two that come to mind here (I’ve yet to find a better way to say them) are, “Burst into tears,” or, “Her heart sank.”

Anything to do with the heart and the way a heart feels in an emotional situation is figurative as the heart feels nothing, and you feel things with your head. So every time you reach for a way to describe the heart in a situation it’s a cliché because it’s a figurative idea that’s been used a lot. Readers get over that quickly.

Also, think about leaving clichés if they’re in dialogue as they can help to characterise a particular character. Sometimes, characters talk in clichés. An unimaginative character may say, “For the umpteenth time, don’t do that!” and it’s appropriate to characterise them in this manner.

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It’s useful to think of clichés as Band-Aids over gaps where something specific would be more effective. When you find one, ask yourself, “What am I really trying to say here?”

Clichés aren’t an evil in themselves, but a flag that this section of prose may be getting lazy and dull. If you find one, consider it carefully. If it’s not pulling its weight in your writing, then do something about it.

Happy cliché hunting!


teal avatar 5ACTIVITY: Clichés

Clichés plague first drafts and are often not noticeable. The faster you write, the more likely you are to reach for a cliché as a shortcut. Readers don’t engage with clichés, and too many can make writing seem tired and boring.

This exercise will help your writing by:

  • Helping you to identify clichés and,
  • Prompting you to exercise your writing brain by making it reach for a more creative solution.



The clichés in these sentences are in bold. Rewrite the sentences so they are fresh and original and post them in the Clichés Forum. What are the other unique ways your peers have rewritten them? Do they bring up a strong image for you? If not, why not? If they did, what was it about the sentence that triggered the image for you?

Don’t be afraid to rewrite extensively, rather than just substituting words.


  • He longed to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
  • “Well, that’s just brilliant,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
  • She tried and tried, but at the end of the day nothing she did could please him.
  • The way she criticised me made my blood boil.
  • They went off together, happy and laughing, and she found herself left out in the cold once again.


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