Original thinking

“Avoid clichés” isn’t very good advice by itself. First, it doesn’t explain why we should avoid them. Second, it doesn’t tell us how to do it. So today let’s turn the advice into something useful.

Clichés are trite, worn-out expressions. Quite often they are very good, colorful turns of phrase. A mouse can be extremely quiet as it goes about its business. So if you say someone was as quiet as a mouse, that’s not a bad description. Or, at least, it wasn’t bad the first time someone used it. But when the phrase gets used over and over, it loses a lot of its punch. Eventually it becomes a standard phrase that people grab without even thinking about it. Worse, it’s a phrase that readers skim over without really paying attention to it. You want readers to pay attention to your words.

The first thing to do, then, is to get your ideas down on paper or on the computer screen. Don’t worry about originality just yet. Then go back and check your writing for stock phrases that you’ve heard your whole life. When you find one, you’ve found a cliché.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is to use original words that express the same idea. And that means you have to understand the idea apart from the familiar words. One resource that can help you is ClichéSite.com. It lists hundreds of clichés, each one with an explanation of what it means. Sometimes you also get an explanation of its origin. For “flash in the pan” the site tells us it “describes a company, person or technology that, in a very short period of time, fails to live up to its promise or expectations and ceases to exist.” It originated with old muzzle loading flintlock rifles that used a pan of powder to set off the main charge in the barrel. Sometimes only the powder in the pan would flash very quickly and not fire the rifle.

Now instead of trying to rewrite the cliché itself, try rewriting the definition. Don’t worry if you don’t come up with something as pithy as the cliché. Just by being original, you’ll get more attention.


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