[OnWritingWell] Avoiding cliches like the plague!
November 28, 2005 6:03 AM   Subscribe

I am trying hard to improve my writing skills and have trying to follow Orwell's advice : Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

How do you do it? I find it hard to switch off the chatter whenever I get down to writing. Invariably the first terms or words that come to mind are what I've read or heard recently via some media.

How does one find one's 'voice' Apart from 'stream of conciousness' writing, are there any other techniques to follow? And as a related question, are there online resources that I can avail to get my writing critiqued?
posted by sk381 to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Writing is a silly thing. People can give you all the rules they want, but if you follow every one of them to the letter, there's not a chance someone won't call you on it's formulaic feel and lack of heart. I don't know if it's entirely necessary, if not completely dangerous that you "switch off" anything when you sit down to write.

I think one of the best methods you can follow is to simply write what comes to mind, and then pare it down. If you don't like your use of an obtuse, stupid-teenage-girl-diary sounding similie, then kill it. Read it aloud and see what words you could do without. Read it aloud again and see what you can do to transform the feelings you ellicit from a phrase by structuring it differently. If you want a certain passage to pull emotionally, pay attention to it and alter it in subtle ways. Toy with your usage of certain words, but don't overanalyze every aspect of your speech patterns.

Have fun with it. Don't be afraid to make your audience wonder what the hell you were thinking, but make them say it through a grin. Make them know there's something just a bit crazy about you—if you write with this goal in mind, you'll be surprised how quickly you'll set yourself apart from 90% of the world's writers, both self-proclaimed and unintentional.

A great place to get some form of feedback is Everything2. E2 is a hardcore community of people who write about anything they can think about. They publish it to the site and interlink their written nodes to each other by means of the clips and phrases that they highlight within their writing. It's easier to just go view an example node to see what I mean. Explore over there, but understand that they are looking for something a bit specific. It wouldn't be ideal for you to just throw up your eighth grade poetry book and see what sticks. As such, they're probably not exactly what you're looking for.

Also, be aware that a general critiquing of writing is a very dangerous thing. Some people write and break all convention, and their writing is incredible and breathtaking because of it. Some people break the rules of grammar and it physically hurts to try to wade through their original intent. If the reader can "see what you were going for," then you're doing well. If the reader understands beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was your words that made them feel a certain way, that made them laugh harder than they had in weeks, or cry for just a moment, then you know you're doing what you need to. Read your pieces over and over until you yourself know that it's going to do that to others.

Your own writing should excite you. Hubris or not, you should read what you've written and smile, because of how damn clever you were. You should feel at least some of the emotion you're trying to impart, although the full force will be left to those unprepared. But you should be utterly proud of what you've written and even then, you should go ahead and give it another go.

The most powerful tool you can ever adopt in your writing is simply the concept of reading habitually. Read everything you can get your hands on. Dabble in as many styles and genres as you can and eat it all up. You don't need to read all of War & Peace to know how Tolstoy moves, so move on. Find a list of great authors and then burrow through some blogs. See how the "everyman" writes, and then see how the "experts" write. For blogs, you can quickly find a few random entries on Blogger, but take a second to look through this list and see how some people actually make a living with their words.

Read it all, but most importantly, truly absorb it. Take in why an author used one word or phrase instead of another. Then use their devices and make them your own. Never plagiarize, but use whatever you can to broaden your way of thinking. Examine how many different ways you can think to describe a sunset, then wonder how many other ways I can. Just stretch your way of thinking, and continue to write throughout the entire process.

Keep a journal. It doesn't matter where. Write somewhere people can see it, if you're feeling frisky, but feel free to keep something private. Free associate and stream of consciousness, but also create little challenges for yourself. Write a 100 word story on the reason you hate grass. Then write another one. Make them radically different—tell one as a narrative about the time that grass murdered your brother, but the other just as a simple expression of hatred towards yardwork. Shift paradigms often and have fun doing it.

My writing only ever improves in the presence of other great writers. I interned/wrote for Gizmodo under my editor Joel Johnson. The guy had this style of writing that just made me blink and exclaim "I didn't know you could craft something like that, in so few words." Click here for a perfect example of what I mean.

Remember that Originality is Overrated, but only to a degree. Take what you can from others, then create your own take on it.

Lastly, feel free to email me to discuss more about writing and the like. I'm not professionally "qualified" or anything like that, but I am passionate about it.

Truly, that is the key. Become passionate and stay passionate about it, and you'll find yourself wowing the masses.
posted by disillusioned at 6:27 AM on November 28, 2005

It is sometimes tricky to avoid imitating the style of something one has read recently, but I find the influence only lasts a few hours. The stronger my writing 'voice' has become, the less I've found myself directly imitating others' work.

The two ways to develop a voice are painfully obvious: read tons and write tons. When I say 'read', I mean read a lot of quality examples of your chosen medium: newspapers, novels, biographies or whatever. You will find that you unconsciously remember the techniques used in your reading matter.

You must then write as much as you can. I don't see the point in vomiting onto the page. Instead, take care to refine what you write - this is what produces your voice. You will find that you dismiss some techniques used in your reading matter, and adopt others. This is good - the different techniques you use combine to form your 'voice' and everyone borrows ideas of each other.

Good luck.
posted by pollystark at 6:29 AM on November 28, 2005

Write first, edit later. Trying to do them the other way 'round just guarantees nothing gets on the page.

You'll find your voice in time. And when you do, you'll find you've had it all along.

But write first. Seriously, that's the best piece of advice to follow.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:36 AM on November 28, 2005

Stop paying attention to media. Watch less TV, listen to less radio, read fewer magazines and newspapers. I don't think you said what kind of writing you're doing, but I think the best way to learn to write well is to read lots and lots of fiction.
posted by scratch at 6:59 AM on November 28, 2005

Ken Smith's Junk English lists many modern cliches and jargon terms. (ISBN: 0-922233-23-3). Reading through that book is an excellent way of giving your brain a colonic and flushing out the poor writing crap in there. His entry on "parasitic intensifiers" is worth the cover price: "(broad) generalization... (coveted) honor... (diametrically) opposed..."

In general, expose yourself to good writing, and do not expose yourself to bad writing. Be cautious about reading too much of anything written quickly--AP wire stories, insta-type bloggers, things I write, and so on. Put yourself on a steady diet of well-edited, unprofitable magazines like the Atlantic and the New Yorker.
posted by profwhat at 7:46 AM on November 28, 2005

I disagree with scratch: I think that skillful writing comes from disciplined practice, and reading everything you can get your hands on helps. This varies for everyone, of course, but I've found that writing is not magical or mystical: good writing is the product of study and experimentation. Surrounding yourself with language can make you a greater connoisseur; you'll become more attuned to those voices that stand out, and your appreciation of quality will improve.

I always recommend Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird; it's an excellent source of information on process. Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is another classic that might help jump start your thinking.
posted by hamster at 7:48 AM on November 28, 2005

The title of your post is also the title of a great book on writing: On Writing Well by William Zinsser. In it, you will find great advice on learning the skill of writing.
posted by caddis at 7:50 AM on November 28, 2005

You might find Peter Elbow's book Writing with Power helpful, particularly if you're of a "I freewrite, now what?" mindset.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:55 AM on November 28, 2005

The term "cliche" comes form the French meaning (basically) a "rubber stamp". I like to think of cliches in that neutral way: they can be dull and hackneyed but they are also the quickest way of establishing quite complex shared understanding with your reader. Prose that avoids all cliches also risks being verbose.
posted by rongorongo at 7:58 AM on November 28, 2005

Someone above recommended Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird," which is the only book on writing I've ever kept. She gives one piece of advice which should be followed at all costs: allow yourself to create shitty first drafts. Just write, use all the cliches and hackneyed phrases you want, don't edit yourself. You can always come back and fix it later. Few, if any, writers do it all right on the first draft. Writing truly is rewriting.
posted by lhauser at 8:28 AM on November 28, 2005

You might find the answers to this question useful: How can I be more original?

And I second everything that disillusioned said.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:30 AM on November 28, 2005

I find it hard to switch off the chatter...
Then stop fighting. Write through it. Edit later.
posted by cribcage at 8:52 AM on November 28, 2005

Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must be so compelling to you that you want everyone to share your excitement. But they won't unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, etc.

Bad writing generally stems from one's attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn't imitate what one sees in print, but I'd add that one should also try not to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn't care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story. Being original -- or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one's own writing and other, published pieces -- has nothing to do with telling a story. And originality attempts generally weaken the story, because it's very hard to complete two goals at once. If you have just ONE goal (your story), and you're clear about what it is, then you'll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else's story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you're serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.

Instead of "Never use a metaphor ... which you are used to seeing in print," I'd advise avoiding metaphor altogether -- until you NEED one. What's the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor's purpose? Remember, you're trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman's boots, to taste the diner's bitter coffee. There will come a point when you can't convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man's love for his wife this way?), so you'll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can't describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else -- something familiar and evocative to the reader -- so that he can experience the original idea via a proxie. Maybe the readers can't feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it's like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?

Without trying, your metaphor WILL be original. It will have to be, or it won't work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader FEEL. This is similar to the point song in a musical. Producers tell their composer/lyricist collaborators to make the hero break into song only when speech will no longer convey the emotion. ("I just met a girl named Maria!"

As for finding one's voice, it also happens when you quit trying. Don't make the mistake of trying to look natural when you're posing for a photograph. You can't do it. But you WILL look natural if someone snaps your picture while you're busy measuring a cup of flour for a muffin recipe. You'll look natural because you'll be actively pursuing a goal -- other than Being Natural. So simply by telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice (which you already have, because you're a human being) will emerge.

By the way, I'm NOT advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story -- that engage the reader's senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don't serve your story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?

When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound "too original." This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I'm generally really proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that the reader will think, "Wow, what a cool turn of phrase." At which point they've lost the thread of the story. As Hemingway said, you must kill all your darlings. As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist) the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.
posted by grumblebee at 9:09 AM on November 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Prose that avoids all cliches also risks being verbose.

Well, maybe. But I think a great writer constantly uses words that are so right in phrases that are so tight that they have the potential to become the clichés of the future.
posted by Mo Nickels at 9:45 AM on November 28, 2005

My voice only comes out in the second round of editing (the third pass through the work).

When I write I'm initially concerned with nothing but getting my ideas down on the page in some semblance of order and clarity. Later, on my first editing run through, I look for gaps, unsupported conclusions, etc, basically the flaws that keep an interesting idea from being a good piece of writing. Then on my second round of editing I edit for style and voice.

Essentially I look at writing as akin to building construction: start with the foundation, walls and roof, then put on the flooring, dry wall and windows, finally pick out your colors and furniture.
posted by oddman at 9:56 AM on November 28, 2005

Like "Show, Not Tell," I think Orwell's advice is one of those English class cliches that can easily lead in the wrong direction and make it hard to communicate with your fellow human beings.

Yeah, you want your language to sound fresh and alive, and not like an e-commerce sales brochure. On the other hand, cliche'd metaphors give you a whole toolbox that you don't want to chuck out the window in trying to reinvent the English language all by yourself. If you feel that "chatter" all around you, don't fight it, go with it...but maybe subvert it a little to sound fresh.

Oh, and avoid the passive voice, and you will be fine.
posted by johngoren at 10:51 AM on November 28, 2005

p.s. great thread, and grumblebee's advice on self-consciousness is excellent. Pay heed!
posted by johngoren at 11:09 AM on November 28, 2005

Oh, and avoid the passive voice, and you will be fine.

I think this advice is one of those writing cliches that can easily lead in the wrong direction.
posted by rafter at 11:13 AM on November 28, 2005

You're right about that.
posted by johngoren at 11:36 AM on November 28, 2005

It's interesting that you use the phrase "find your voice".

I found that my writing improved a great deal when I started working in radio.

The knowledge that I or someone else would be reading the text out loud focused the mind, and although I don't do radio any more, it remains a useful mechanism.

Read your work out loud, or at least imagine it being read out loud, and think about how it sounds.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:08 PM on November 28, 2005

On the other hand, cliched metaphors give you a whole toolbox that you don't want to chuck out the window in trying to reinvent the English language all by yourself.

Although I don't advocate Orwell's approach (see above), I am very against cliche. But I wonder if we're defining the term in two different ways. I would never tell anyone to avoid "that 'chatter' all around you." Cliche is not the same as the popular or the often-repeated. There is a connection. Phrases often BECOME cliche through repetition. But the mere fact that a phrase is popular doesn't make it cliche.

Cliche phrases shouldn't be dumped because they're popular, they should be dumped simply they aren't evocative. This calls for a subjective judgement (what's evocative to me may not be evocative to you), but such is the nature of writing.

I would call "it's my way or the highway" cliche, because when I hear it, I don't actually visualize a highway. I just hear blah-blah-blah-or-blah-blah-blah and get a general sense of "do it the way I want or get out." Actually, "do it the way I want or get out" is sharper and clearer than "it's my way or the highway." But I bet that "highway" WAS an evocative phrase before it got overused.

Thanks to "Survivor," "under the radar" is (for me) becoming a cliche. I'd be scared to use it. It's actually quite evocative if you can actually visualize a plane coming in under the radar. But it's sort of becoming a word to me: undertheradar.

"Show, Not Tell,"

This is EXCELLENT advice. It becomes crap when an English teacher just repeats it, without explaining what it means. Again, the reason you should show -- which doesn't necessarily mean "conjure up a VISUAL image" -- is because people are best reached through their senses. Don't TELL me the Vietnam War was horrible. PUT me in the middle of a battle, let me smell the Napalm and see the rotting flesh.

Here's an example of telling:

Daisy and Gatsby were in love, but awkward around each other. So instead of speaking about his feelings, he decided to show her all of his expensive clothing. After she had seen dozens of beautiful outfits, she couldn't stand the romantic tension anymore and broke down.

Here's F.Scott Fitzgerald's version:

Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.

"I've got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall."

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and think silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seem such--such beautiful shirts before."

Note the understated metaphor, "piled like bricks," quietly doing its job. Note how Fitzgerald puts us there. One can imagine being in the room as the shirts cascade all over the place. He appeals to our senses.

This sort of detail (i.e. the "stripes and scrolls and plains in coral") is tricky to get right, but also fun to play with. Let's say you're writing a detective story, and a mysterious lady comes into your P.I.'s office. How much detail do you use to describe her? The POINT (perhaps) is that she makes your hero feel uneasy, yet also aroused. You don't want to simply SAY, "She made me feel uneasy yet aroused," because that won't engage the reader. You want the reader to feel uneasy and aroused. So you need to pick details that may make him feel that way. If you get too detailed, you might derail the story. You need to keep things moving forward VIA detail. Maybe mention that she's all in black, with just an edge of something red sticking out of her collar. Is it a scarf? In the gloom of the office, it's impossible to tell whether the glimpse of smooth leg is bare or in hose. When she moves to speak, she shifts slightly, and the red -- whatever it was -- vanishes in the crevace between her blouse and her skin.
posted by grumblebee at 12:33 PM on November 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

grumblebee gives good advice. I want to highlight one of the points he's hitting on; that good writing is about describing the right details, not just any details. This is particularly true if your narration is tied to a specific character (even if you're writing in third person). In those instances, the narration comes across as an expression of that character's perspective. You can't describe everything, so what you do choose to describe is telling, as it's akin to saying what the character notices or hones in on.

Too many people in my fiction classes seem to think that providing detail equals good writing, regardless of how that detail relates to the story and characters, so they go on at length about environments and objects and sensory information with little or no connection to the characters or events or the emotional arc of the story. If you're going to provide detail about something, it should be relevant in some way. It doesn't have to be an obvious way, but you should have something in mind, otherwise the reader gets bored and frustrated. Don't tell us all about the shirts for the sake of providing description, tell us about the shirts to illustrate the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:33 PM on November 28, 2005

Writing truly is rewriting.

Oh, yes, well written prose only comes after multiple edits. Some people, such as Miguel, seem to effortlessly write well written prose. However, I would guess from the quality of his prose that he usually reread, edited and tweaked most of his comments prior to posting. Creativity frequently comes out on the first explosion of words to the page, but readability, and eloquence comes with work. Like Edison said, genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration.

Prose that avoids all cliches also risks being verbose.

Actually, I think cliches represent just one more form of verbosity.
posted by caddis at 7:01 PM on November 28, 2005

Lots of good advice above, so I'll limit myself to a couple of quick points:
- There's no single correct way to write (longhand, notes scribbled for later transcription, dictation, on a typewriter or laptop, etc.), but we tend to be most comfortable reading the printed page. So, however you write, do at least one edit of your work after printing it on a clean sheet of paper (rather than in the original format).
- Poor writing can be as instructive as fine. I was impressed with what disillusioned wrote above, so I clicked on this link to a piece his one-time editor wrote. He cited it approvingly (I think); I thought it was awful! Figuring out what you don't like — and why — is as good a way to find your voice as studying your literary idols.
posted by rob511 at 7:14 PM on November 28, 2005

Thank you all, for the excellent suggestions!
posted by sk381 at 7:16 PM on November 28, 2005

Thank you all, for the excellent suggestions! There is a lot to learn from them.
posted by sk381 at 7:17 PM on November 28, 2005

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