4 Tips for Avoiding Sentence-Level Clichés

redpenWhen it comes to line editing, one of the major issues you’ll want to watch for are clichés. These are the metaphors and phrases that are so overused they’ve become meaningless and tired. Lines like “what goes around comes around” or “better late than never” are phrases we hear all the time, but they’re usually not the most effective choice. Because we hear these phrases so often, many writers don’t realize how many clichés are in their writing. So, how can you spot these clichés in your work, and how can you eliminate them?

Here are my tips:

  1. Determine what you’re really saying

What often makes a phrase a cliché is that it’s become a kind of shorthand for expressing an idea. If you find yourself using a cliché, think about what you’re really trying to say, and then think about a better way to say it. For example, if you’ve written that someone “hit the nail on the head,” what you want to say is that they got something exactly right. So how else might you say that? What fits best with your narrator or character’s voice? Is there another metaphor they might use that’s unique to them?

  1. Make it new

Similarly, you might be able to make your writing feel fresh by playing with clichés and spinning them into something new. Include just enough of the original phrase to make it recognizable, but then twist it into something different. This might change the meaning of the original in a way that’s interesting, or it might give it the same meaning in a different way.

For example, the phrase “sell like hot cakes” is long outdated (it was originally a reference to early American cornmeal cakes), but you could try applying it to the setting of your book instead. Maybe a contemporary character could replace “hot cakes” with a pop culture reference, or a character living in the future would reference something that exists only in the future.

You might also want to invoke parts of a cliched phrase, but trust your reader to fill in the rest. For example, “desperate times call for desperate measures” sounds trite, but “desperate times” sounds fine, or “desperate measures” could be a chapter title… Have fun with all of the wordplay possibilities here!

  1. Discard your first choice

When you’re writing a first draft, it’s only natural to use a cliché here and there as you try to get the words down, and you’re probably thinking more about the story than about the words you’re using at that point. But once you go back over your work, it’s time to consider the phrases that you’re using. Many of those automatic, first-thing-that-comes-to-mind phrases are actually clichés that you’ve retained subconsciously. As you read over your early drafts, ruthlessly examine your prose and look for places where you used the most obvious or common phrase. Then replace it with something better.

  1. Locate common phrases

If you’re having trouble spotting those frequent clichés, there are several online resources that can help. Tools like this one can identify clichés in text, and this one allows you to look up common phrases. There are also tools like this one that help you find a cliché if you want to use one or identify whether a phrase is too common.


Do you struggle with writing clichés? How do you identify them? Have any tips for avoiding them? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

When to Show and When to Tell

5 Common Novel Openings to Avoid

Giving Your Protagonist Tough Choices

Revision Strategies for Your Novel


3 thoughts on “4 Tips for Avoiding Sentence-Level Clichés

  1. Claire Fullerton says:

    I enjoy your blog posts so much! And you helped me immensely on constructing a top-level query letter! I thought I had the matter in hand until I had you critique the letter I sent out, and your adjustments proved monumental! Thank you for your presence on WordPress; I am thrilled to have found you and will be recommending you to everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

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