Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 28, 2012

Ax Your Cliches: Why and How

We couldn't talk WriterStrong without our Yoda of Edits and sparkling prose, Margie Lawson. Be prepared for great takeaway as Margie not only tells you, but shows you how it's done!  Here she is:

A big THANK YOU to Laura Drake for inviting me to be her guest today.

Everything I teach is all about WriterStrong and Craft Strong!

Most writers know to avoid writing clichés. But they write them anyway.

What makes something clichéd?  Overuse.

At one time every cliché was fresh. Maybe clever. Sometimes funny.

The first time someone wrote or said it, it was fresh. Now, not so much.

If you’ve read a sentence a dozen times, or twenty dozen times, or every which way but Sunday, it is as boring as it is annoying.

Clichés are old hat. Clichés are yesterday’s news. Clichés are been there, done that.

Clichés are scummy water under a broken-down bridge.

They’re predictable. They’re tired. They’re lazy. There are two ways that clichés weaken writing:

  1. Clichés are an invitation to skim. We covered this point above.
  2. Clichés block the power that could have been on the page.

We’ll dig deep into this point.

Again: Clichés block the power that could have been on the page.

Consider this cliché.

When my mother drank, she acted like a mad dog.

Here’s how Lisa Unger played off that cliché in Black Out.

My mother liked to drink. It was a mad dog she kept on a chain. When it got loose, it chewed through our lives.

That’s a perfect example of a cliché blocking the power that could have been on the page.

NYT bestseller Lisa Unger used elements of that cliché to deepen characterization and add power.

Enjoy these examples, and learn from them too.

Stephen White, The Siege:

Poe didn’t dig his heels in often, but when he did he set them in concrete.

With all due respect, you’re dead in the water without me. Miles from shore.

I’ll run over you and I will treasure the tire marks I leave on your neck.

Darynda Jones, First Grave on the Right

Hard as I tried, I couldn’t help but get a little hot under my seven-dollar thrift-store Gucci collar.

I could almost see the wheels spinning in his head. After a few moments more, I began to think those wheels needed a good oiling.

The next cliché rewrites are from Margie-grads in my current Immersion class.

Lori Freeland, Awakening 

Cliché: I’d been on a highway to hell.

Rewrite: I’d taken the ramp to my own highway to hell or merged onto Aunt Julia’s interstate to insanity.

Elizabeth Cockle, In the Bag

Cliché:  The relationship took a nose dive.

Rewrite: Their eighteen month relationship sputtered like a match in a rainstorm.

Melissa  McCloneBachelor of the Year

NOTE:  This book is set in the world of show dogs.

Opening of Chapter 1, Playing Off a Cliché:

The incessant barking from the backyard of his family’s palatial estate confirmed Caleb Fairchild’s fear. His grandmother had gone to the dogs.

BEFORE:  The quality of his suit shouted one thing—out of her league.

Story-themed Rewrite:  His top-of-the-line suit shouted one thing—Best in Show.


She’d tried playing up several rungs on the social ladder with a guy who looked a lot like this man. She’d learned the hard way that rules were different for people like her. Better to stick with her own peeps than fall flat on her face or land her butt in jail.


They didn’t belong in the same ring. He was a champion with an endless pedigree. She was a mutt without a collar. She’d tried to play with the big dogs once and landed in the dog house, also known as jail.

What did those smart writers do to strengthen their writing?

They nixed or twisted or played off their clichés.

They made them story-themed and character-themed.

They amplified a cliché, like in the example below.

Melissa  McClone,  Bachelor of the Year

With her short, pixie-cut brown hair and no make-up she was pretty in a girl-next-door way kind of way. If he’d ever had a next-door neighbor whose house wasn’t separated by acres of land, high fences, and security cameras.

Writers often use the same predictable body language. Lips narrowing into a thin line. Eyebrows lifting. Hands fisting. Fingernails digging into palms.

Check out this rewrite by Margie-grad Lori Freeland, Awakening.

If I had talons for nails, my palms would be bloody.

Fresh and powerful.

The type of fresh and powerful writing that impresses agents and editors, reviewers and readers.

My online courses are loaded with tips and techniques for how to dig deep. How to write fresh. How to add power to every page, every sentence. Please drop by my web site and check out my courses, and the full line-up of courses offered by Lawson Writer's Academy.

Check out my Immersion Master Class page too!


Are you motivated to nix or fix your clichés, and add more power?

Please post a comment -- or post ‘Hi Margie!’

You’ll be entered in a drawing for an online course from me!

 Lawson Writer’s Academy

1.    Sept. 24 – Oct. 19:  The EDITS System:  Turning Troubled Scenes in to Winners    Instructor: Margie Lawson

2.    October 1 - 26: Getting Serious About Writing a Series   Instructor: Lisa Wells

3. October 1 - 26: I HATE to Write a Synopsis  Instructor: Sharon Mignerey

4.  Oct. 29 - Dec. 7: Fab 30 in 40 Days: Advanced Deep Editing, A Master Class Instructor: Margie Lawson

Please check Lawson Writer's Academy to read course descriptions. Thank you!
Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.

Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last seven years, she presented over seventy full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Please contact Margie if you think your group might be interested in having her present a master class for them.

For more information on Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, full day master classes, and the 4-day Immersion Master Class sessions offered in Margie’s Colorado mountain-top home, visit:  www.MargieLawson.com.


0 comments on “Ax Your Cliches: Why and How”

  1. Brilliant as always Margie--love the twists on cliches that you provided here, and how they not only make a reader sit up and take notice, they are packed with voice. 🙂 And nice to see Lori Freeland's writing here too!


    1. Angela --
      Thank you! Those examples are packed with VOICE!
      I just read your comment to Lori.
      I'm having the best time with her and her Immersion sisters. Fabulous class!
      Wish you were here. Next year? 😉

  2. Margie! So glad to find you here. It's almost like being on the mountain with you and Lori and Elizabeth.

    Who am I kidding? So not like being there, but I know my girls are in good hands. Hugs!

  3. What a great idea! I love the idea of expanding on cliches and making them more story specific. Will be keeping this idea in mind as I'm editing. So long as I can actually spot the cliches in the first place...

  4. Hi, Margie! I love a twisted cliche, but I'm never quite sure whether I've twisted mine sufficiently. Here's one from my WIP: Abby held a hand to her heart, unable to imagine Rob doing anything to a fly, other than opening a door to shoo it out.

  5. Sometimes I think I learn more from reading the blogs from this site than I have in the classes I've taken. And I have taken a lot of them. My attention span is as short two year old in a toy store. I have heard you give great classes. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks for a great post, Margie! You gave us a lot to think about and take back to our writing.
    Have to go now. I'm going cliche hunting!
    Now where did I leave my double barrel pen?

  7. Hi Margie! Love the examples because when I heard advice to avoid the cliches, I thought that meant remove them completely. This shows me how to tweak them to keep the jist of the cliche, which help readers to get the point, while making them fresh.


  8. Thanks Margie. I just ran a chapter through a cliche finder and was horrified. I think we use them so much that we don't even recognize them any more! The invitation to skim was there loud and strong. I love your examples because the writing is more meaningful to the story.

  9. Hi Margie!!

    Loved hearing - again - your great information at RWA Nationals this year. If I hear it often enough, it's gonna sink in. And you looked darling in your cute little sweater and dress!

    Looking forward to seeing you in May in Tahoe!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  10. My latest favorite twist on a cliche came from Kristen Lamb: "The attention span of a fruit bat on crack..."

    I agree with Charla - we don't always realize we're using cliches because they're so much a part of our every day language.

    1. Sorry, I have to tag on to Lisa. It must be "that time of the month" for WordPress 🙂

      Margie, you are a beacon for so many who are lost in the woods of words, sentences, images, the underbrush thick and crunching under my feet, like the worn out prose or backstories I used BEFORE we met and I took your great class.

      So glad to see you here again 🙂

  11. Wonderful, informative post, as usual, Margie! Love your examples. I guess it’s true what they say, that you learn something new every day. Hey a cliché! Guess I’ll try my hand at un-twisting it.

    Okay, off the top of my head…

    Carol learned an awesome new writing technique today when she read a post by Margie Lawson on the WRITERS IN THE STORM BLOG. She’s looking forward to learning something new when she visits tomorrow.

    Not the greatest, I know, but there it is.

    Have a great weekend!


  12. Jumping in to say "Hi Margie!"
    You know I "cyber-stalk" you whenever I can. I learn so much gleaning tidbits from your posts.

  13. Is this a learned skill? I thought the information about cliches was given in very simple easy-to-learn steps. But I'm afraid when I flipped the switch, the light bulb exploded instead of giving me any bright ideas.

  14. Great to get acqainted with you, Margie, through your informative post! I, too have read good reviews about your classes. I look forward to applying your lesson about turning tired cliches into original and character-driven phrases.

  15. Margie, I attended your all day class in Dallas and the one you and Diana Love gave plus I've taken an online class. Thank you for the help I received. You ARE the Guru of power writing!

  16. Excellent examples!
    But there is this problem. I'm unable to rewrite this one cliche that reads "Margie Rocks"! 🙂

  17. [...] At one time every cliché was fresh. Maybe clever. Sometimes funny. The first time someone wrote or said it, it was fresh. Now, not so much.   If you’ve read a sentence a dozen times, or twenty dozen times, or every which way but Sunday, it is as boring as it is annoying. Clichés are old hat. Clichés are yesterday’s news. Clichés are been there, done that.   Clichés are scummy water under a broken-down bridge.  [...]

  18. Hi Margie!
    Love the post! I often have trouble eliminating cliches in my writing. Merely twisting them is an exciting solution indeed!

  19. Wonderful examples. I particularly liked how Lisa Unger twisted the 'mad dog' cliché to produce something so powerful. This truly is an awesome post.

  20. "If I had talons for nails, my palms would be bloody."
    Fresh, powerful, vivid indeed!
    One sentence makes me look forward to reading the whole novel...

  21. I was Googling for ways to eliminate cliches from my writing and I bumped into this article.
    Love the idea of playing off cliches, making them story-themed or character-themed and, in the process, generating something fresh and potent...
    Thanks Margie & Writersinthestorm !

  22. Hi Margie!
    Keeping enough of the cliche for the reader to catch the gist and twisting it enough to make it fresh...
    Great idea!!!! And Great examples to back it up.

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