About Cliches….

Hiya, Scribes and Scribe-friends! Good to see you all again. I hope you enjoyed our Story in the Round – I know I did!

As I pondered what to write in this, our first post-story-post, I tried to come up with something that might be interesting to readers and writers both. I tossed around ideas like Cool Books I’ve Read Lately, or Cool Things I’ve Written Lately.

And then? Well, and then I received the NICEST EVER rejection letter for a short story I submitted to a magazine months ago, and all other thoughts went out the window.

I know you’ve probably heard before that a writer’s life is full of rejection and it can suck. It can beat you down and make you want to not only quit writing, but also…just…quit. Everything. The idea of crawling into some hole in the ground with just a pillow and a blanket and chocolate and wine (DON’T FORGET THE WINE) can suddenly be so appealing, nothing but, well, a pillow and a blanket and chocolate and wine (above ground) can snap you out of it.

But rejection can sometimes, occasionally, also be incredibly helpful. This particular letter was for a story that came quite close to being accepted. In the end, they turned it down, but because they were kind they and wanted to help, the editor included actual notes from their editorial staff about where it fell flat.

A letter like this is a gem. A diamond (albeit in the rough, since it can still sting a little). Insight into what editors think as they read your stuff is exactly what you need so you can learn to write better.

In this case, I learned: I write in cliches. Seriously. Three of the five comments included that nasty little word, letting me know that for all my self-assumed originality, I am still relying on that old writer’s crutch – the cliche. The overused phrase. The hands shaking, the adrenaline coursing, the heart pounding.

The cliche.


This is bad. Cliches are…they’re…well, they’re cliche, right? Readers want writing that’s new and exciting and fresh, not old and tired. And the problem is, most of us write in cliches without even realizing we do it. Phrases that come from our typing fingers sound good to us because they’re familiar…because we write what we know.

After reading the comments, I pulled out another older story, one written around the same time, and holy cow, it is chock full of generic writing. Deep sighs and watery eyes, sweat dripping and lips trembling…I’m not going to say it’s terrible (I love this particular story, I really do!), but there they are, clear as day. Cliches. And as painful as it is, I’m going to have to fix them ALL if I want to find the story a home.

This may all sound obvious. It certainly does to me now that I’ve had it pointed out. But it’s hard to recognize cliches in our own writing, because they usually sound so right. And when you have friends reading your stuff, and they’re giving you friendly feedback, they might not notice them either.

Sometimes it takes a super-disinterested third party to point out the obvious.

Lesson learned.

The good news here, for me anyway, is that I’m about to dive headfirst into a huge novel manuscript, and I feel refreshed. There’s a ton of work ahead of me, but now I’m on the lookout for this, my writer’s crutch.

And sometimes knowing is the hardest part, right? (Go, Joe!!)

Oh! And since this is about writing, I have to share the BEST essay EVER about avoiding “thought” verbs in your own stuff. Penned by Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club fame and fortune), it provides the best examples I’ve seen of “showing” instead of “telling.” Because everyone knows we should “show” and not “tell,” but it’s hard to understand without examples. Palahniuk provides them in spades in this piece, and even gives you a great writing exercise to try.

It’s another thing to keep in the very tippy-forefront mind as I edit my beast.

So. Cliches = bad, even though they often feel good. And show, don’t tell. It’s age-old writerly advice, but it’s true and it’s solid and it’s right. Good luck moving forward!!

8 thoughts on “About Cliches….

  1. It’s funny, I had a similar experience this year with a short story — my crutch-words were laid bare, my plain prose pointed out to me, some suggestions made on how to make an image or moment between the characters really pop with better word choices. Ouch! And yet, the feedback was bang on. I was mortified I hadn’t seen it myself. But then, on revising, I found all kinds of other things in the story that needed that same attention, and by the time I’d rewritten everything, I felt it was a much, much better piece.
    And yes, a rejection letter like the one you describe is GOLD (sorry; cliché AND I’m screwing up your metaphor). Maybe it is, in fact, coal. Because it can power your revisions but it’s up to you to shovel that fuel on the fire. I’ve gotten the polite, form “not interested”letters (which are fine) as well as at least one “We’re going to send out acceptances first and release the TOC to the world before we send out rejections.” I’ll take the stinging feedback any day.

    1. Thanks so much for the reply, and it’s good to know I’m not alone. Those letters can definitely be painful, but in a good way! 😀 And you can totally mix up my metaphors any time you want….I usually mix ’em up on my own, too! Ha!!

      Thanks again, and good to “meet” you here and on Twitter!

      1. Good to meet you too!
        BTW, have you ever read Douglas Smith’s series on writing and publishing short fiction? His advice has certainly got me to be more organized and not get down about rejection. In fact I think these days I resubmit even faster after getting the dreaded rejection letter.

  2. Shauna Granger says:

    Love how we all fight to show and not tell but then fall into tropes. Heart racing, palms sweating, yeah, all of that to say “scared.” Loved that essay by Chuck P. so glad you sent that to me, found myself deleting “thought,” “remembered,” “wondered” the other day while writing.

    Bright side? You’ll be ready to full out attack my MS when you get it 😀

  3. Good points all around. I’ve been working hard on writing fresh – in fact have just done a couple of Margie Lawson classes where she insists on it. I’m in the midst of a 3rd or 4th editing pass through a manuscript, and this is the hardest yet because I’m weeding out every ‘thought’ word and every stilted bit of choreography (“she turned and looked”). It’s tough stuff.
    Great post, Leah!

    1. Thanks, Liv!! Those tough edits can suck, but hopefully it’ll be worth it in the end, right? 😀 I just did one of those this summer and the jury’s still out…but fingers will always be crossed! Hahaha

      Good luck!

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