Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ear Worms

It's Wordy Wednesday...

...time for some reflections from the editor's desk.

Pardon me if I seem to be in a “pet peeves” mode today. You know how sometimes you notice one little detail, and suddenly you see it everywhere? Well, lately I’ve noticed an overuse of two clichés, the literary equivalent of ear-worms, so I’m on a de-worming campaign.

A cliché starts as an original expression, but devolves through misuse and overuse into meaningless verbiage. One I can’t get out of my head is “turn on one’s heel.” The original use appears to have been an attempt to show how a character can spin around, usually in anger or disgust. My problem with the phrase is not only overuse, although that’s bad enough. What gets to me is that the action described is nearly impossible to do. The angles of our knees and ankles and the balance of our muscles are all wrong for this motion. Seriously, have you ever tried turning on your heel? I dare you to do it without landing on your derriere. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait… See? If you want to change direction quickly and emphatically, you pivot on your toes. The only person I’ve ever seen turn on his heel was an actor, playing an alien disguised as a human. The effect was truly eerie and, well, alien.

The other worm in my ear could be considered less obnoxious because it takes many forms:

I forced my way through the crowd.

He picked his way over the stones.

She edited her way through a manuscript.

They ate their way through the meal.

We swam our way across the river.

All these sentences indicate movement against resistance, which isn’t so bad. But he pushed his way through the open door? Yes, I’ve run into that one. Where’s the resistance he’s pushing against? My objection to this cliché is its frequency and its lack of detail. How about:

 I wriggled between the dancers.

He tested each stone before he trusted his weight to it.

She wielded her red pen like a machete over a jungle of turgid prose.

They gorged on a smorgasbord.

The river nearly carried us off, but we floundered to the other bank.

He took one bold step into the room.

Yes, these sentences are longer, but much more vivid.

Clichés serve a purpose. They are a kind of shorthand we use without thinking, in the faith that our readers will know what we mean. Indeed, if you never use a cliché your writing may feel foreign or unnatural. However, we can do better. We can use stronger verbs, more precise nouns and more descriptive adjectives to create a sharper picture in our readers’ minds. Examine your use of clichés. If they are not the best way to get your ideas across, turn on your heel and work your way through to better writing. 

Better yet, ditch the cliché and get creative.

Nikki Andrews is an editor at CBG and a published author. She also does freelance editing. Visit her blog at


  1. Love this post, Nikki! The word "way" is on my search list, since it is a common ingredient in many cliches. I love how you demonstrate the power of carefully chosen verbs.

    1. Thanks, Graeme. It's all about letting the reader experience the story as intimately as possible.

  2. I think this is where edits become so important. That's where we pick up on cliches and do the rewrites.

    1. The impartial eye of an editor is essential, Jacquie. Sometimes we get so used to the shorthand, we miss opportunities to deepen our work. We can't see the logs in our own eyes. (And yes, that's a cliche.)

  3. Good commentary, Nikki, on an age-old problem for writers. It's fun to discover the origin of some of our cliches in Shakespeare, for example, but was the phrase original for him? A phrase like "Dead as a doornail" probably began when our ancestors first began to craft with metal. But so important to TRY to use fresh language.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. I do enjoy the history of words and phrases, but sometimes it leaves me with more questions. Why describe a doornail as dead? And does anyone use the verb "bate" anywhere but in the phrase "with bated breath?"

  4. I expected a cliche of a rant and got an incredibly fresh and creative look at the subject! Aieee! Back to the pages, now to look for my lame language and work my way through to a better book!

    1. What a nice compliment, Kathy. I guess my work here is, wait, isn't that another cliche?