“Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before him.”
I’d have to plead to the charge of guilty when it comes to using some pretty outworn phrases here and there in my YA novel. During my revisions, one of my goals has been to root out any of these that I find and replace them with something more exciting. Just today while reviewing my draft, I came across the phrase “chafed at the bit.” Whoops! Have to say that’s a bit hackneyed.
Actually, hackneyed is the perfect word choice. Among The Oxford Compact English Dictionary’s definitions of a “hack” are 1) a writer producing dull, unoriginal work; and 2) a horse for ordinary riding, or one that is inferior or let out for hire. Notice the order here: the lousy writer comes first!
Worn-out phrases are everywhere: Just pick up any newspaper or scan a few online articles and you’re sure to find your fair share of them. And no wonder: research shows that better educated people are actually the most likely to pass along commonplace phrases, probably because they tend to read and absorb more of these overused terms.
Clichés serve as a kind of shorthand: we don’t have to think about them because their meanings are already well-established. Whether we’re talking about “media buzz” or a “raging blizzard,” stock phrases like these have a kind of comfortable familiarity. We don’t really have to think about them. And that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it? As writers, we’re hoping to excite our readers, to arouse their curiosity and emotion. The last thing we want is to encourage them not to think. Might as well take the day off!
Here’s some useful cliche’-busting advice from A Writer’s Coach by Jack Hart: “Don’t worry about clichés in a first draft. If you’re loose and productive, confidently charging through your first draft, you don’t want to agonize over every figure of speech. But you should have no mercy when you’re polishing your work.Seize on each cliché as an opportunity for something fresh…. Above all, surprise your readers.” And write on!