magnifying glass and pieces of paper

Hunt the cliché

It’s July. The weeks fly by towards the deadline of 31st. August. Maybe your first draft, or even the second, is sitting on a shelf gestating after the initial creative flush. Good.

How do you write? Do you get it all down as quickly as possible, not stopping to halt the flow, or do you edit as you go, polish the phrases and produce a piece of writing which is oven-ready up to the point where you stopped writing?

However you write, it is always worth the second read-through with fresh eyes, and the read-out loud.

Have you reached out for the nearest phrase or word which will push the story on?

The well-worn phrase drops so easily into your mind. I was once writing lyrics for a hymn, and on a car journey, the perfect words seemed to emerge from the fog. Brilliant – until a couple of weeks later those words echoed in my mind and continued as the first couplet in a beautifully constructed eighteenth century hymn. Balanced structure, elegant imagery, but someone else thought of it first, and, comfortable as an old shoe, I had seized on it. (cliché alert)

Take the following two sentences:

It was a dark and stormy night

Somewhere outside a dog was barking

They are the opening and closing lines of a piece of writing handed out to me at a creative writing class, designed to demonstrate the cliché. Every sentence effectively demonstrated the art.

And yet taken in isolation both those sentences have much to recommend them. They are evocative.

The first, from the 1830 novel, Paul Clifton by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, pitched the reader into the middle of a wild menacing scene; the second became the final go-to line of stories in the style of hard-boiled American private investigators created by Raymond Chandler or Ross MacDonald – the isolated and melancholy image of darkened New York streets. I expect it was raining.

But these days their familiarity breeds contempt.

It is so easy to resort to the familiar. It is not consciously lazy. These phrases are chosen because they are well-constructed, vivid and memorable.

I once used “a green shade” in a poem about elderly truancy. Although it was commended in a poetry competition, the judge picked up on that phrase from Andrew Marvell’s The Garden. It slid by unnoticed in a US publication whose editor was perhaps not so familiar with English metaphysical poets.

Single words are over-used to the point that they become unusable. You’ll be able to think of many words so hackneyed and misused that they set your teeth on edge but the first couple of times you encountered them they seemed punchy and sharp.

Remember myriad, and even further back nice, so repeated as to have lost all meaning, and so worn out as to be instantly ignored.

Shard – when I used this in a poem referring to Celtic water sacrifices of broken swords it was an accurate, technical term in an archaeological context, but it met with a judge’s criticism as a cliché. I eventually replaced it with the word splinter which had the added benefit of the idea of a long point, which was quite apt.

Iconic has lost any sense of meaning an object of veneration. Television presenters describe anything very good, or even quite good, as iconic – a double-decker bus, Taylor Swift, Harry Kane, Maine Coon cat.

The challenge

To sharpen your cliché=hunting skills, you could read through this piece and spot the ones I have used (deliberately or carelessly!) The reader identifying the most in the Comments box will receive a copy of my recent poetry book, Lessons from the Orchard.

Then turn your forensic skills on your magical entry to the Hysteria writing competition 2023 and make it even more magical. The judges are looking forward to reading it.

(Image by Angelo Giordano from Pixabay)


  1. I suggest that veneration, brilliant and evocative are overused. I’m Canadian and i do notice my British relatives overuse the word brilliant. Upon reading this I realized that my go to word is nice as it’s not judgmental but definitely nondescript. I do need to expand my vocabulary.

    1. I think we could all do with that Jill. My favourites I notice in texts to friends are fabulous and brilliant! Hmmm, I guess I need a few new ones 🙂

  2. Hi
    It was quite a surprise to me, early on, what counted as a cliche. I used to be under the impression that it was the obvious phrases such as ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ and similar but learned that single words and descriptive phrases are viewed as cliches too. It was especially painful when I received feedback on a public forum for a story and was roundly told off for using ‘barrage of advice’ – “How many times have I heard that tired phrase?” groaned the person critiquing. Who knew, eh?
    Not including the words in bold, I think I may have spotted 8 cliches in the ‘Hunt the Cliche’ game. 🙂

  3. I decided to look through and include the ones in bold type as well – given that they were handed to me on a plate (cliche alert!!!) and have found 13, I think!

  4. When I read through the piece I couldn’t really work out what was cliche, what was deliberate, or what was unintended, so I have found 11.

  5. A challenging challenge! x17? (not including the give away x5 in bold). Also spotted a duplication of “picked” in the sentence “… judge picked picked up on ….”!

    1. Ooops, I shall go and remove immediately Sue. And you’re right, I suspect what is a cliché to one, may not be to another!!!

  6. Brilliant, fantastic, fabulous, evocative, incredible, iconic – a myriad of cliches! I’m sorry for the belated
    feedback. I needed Linda to guide me through the technology of Comments.
    When i read Jill’s thoughts about brilliant, I was reminded of the time I was serving at a Farmers’ Market. One pound coins seemed to be rare as hens’ teeth (oops). An 80+ gentleman handed me the exact money for his month’s ration of cakes. It included several pound coins.
    “Brilliant!” I exclaimed with a dazzling smile.
    “It is not brilliant,” he said. ” It is the correct money.”
    I was rebuked.

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