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.
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.