Clichés and How To Use Them

Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to talk about why cliches are not always a bad thing, a lazy way of writing.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017 and was a finalist for best canine book of the year in the Dog Writers of America annual writing contest.

I was watching the News Hour some time ago when they had a special correspondent on from NPR. I am always interested in putting a face on the people I hear so often on the radio and was especially interested in what she had to say, so paid close attention. However, I quickly started to pay attention to something else. Clichés. Her piece was filled with them.

I probably wouldn’t have been so struck be that if I hadn’t attended all those writing classes. Don’t use clichés, we were told. Go through your manuscript and take them all out. They are the lazy person’s way to express themselves and an editor will immediately reject you if you use them. Besides, they mark you as uneducated, uninformed, not willing to go the extra mile to properly express yourself.

For a long time, I have had a horror of those innocent little expressions.

However, the more I thought about them the more I wondered. Are they really so awful? Didn’t they come into being because they were a good shortcut to express a very real sentiment? I’ve known as many people with college degrees whose speech is littered with clichés as those who still are struggling to get their GED. Maybe more. I’ve found they can come in handy when writing dialog. They can help you define the personality of a character. That character doesn’t have to come across as lazy, ignorant, or anything other than that’s the way they talk.

It’s the way we all talk. If we didn’t use them so often, they wouldn’t be clichés. Of course, if you are going to use them, it’s a good idea to use them appropriately. My grandmother used to pepper her speech with them. One of her favorites was “until the last dog was hung.” I don’t think she realized that little cliché sprung from testing the gallows in jolly old England back in the days when they hung people for just about anything, and they had a surplus of stray dogs. They really did hang dogs until they had the timing and the tension on the rope just right. Ugg. Needless to say, I haven’t told my dogs that story.

I knew someone who kept referring to a relative as “my shirttail relative.” That usually means someone who hangs onto your shirttail while you drag them along behind. It’s a faintly disparaging term. Only, in this case, the relative was pretty rich and handed out possessions and money to the rest of the family.

So, maybe it’s not the cliché that’s at fault, but the way we use them. Maybe all those writing teachers really meant we’re only lazy writers if we don’t use them properly, knowing what they mean. Maybe what they were against was using them as short cuts, just throwing them in without thought, because we’ve always said that phrase, or heard it used, without wondering where it came from or what it really means.  I can live with that. So, from here on, I am going to feel free to use whatever cliché appeals to me but will research it first to find out what I just said. And that’s no cliché.