This post is excerpted from The Writer’s Workout, my third book from Writer’s Digest Books…you can learn more about it and all my helpful writing books right here.
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~ Mark Twain
Avoid overused words that have achieved cliché status. Thanks to the increased speed of communication, it seems like a word can hit the cliché zenith overnight these days.
I like Sam Horn’s advice for how to handle clichés. In POP, Stand Out in Any Crowd, she says, “Substituting something unexpected for something expected startles people out of autopilot mode and pleasantly surprises them with your originality.”
Here is an assortment of tired words writers and editors shared with me that desperately need to be replaced with fresher ideas, plus a few words I’m weary of myself:
Of course, clichéd doesn’t merely apply to overused words. As author Scott Edelstein points out, “A cliché is anything trite and overused. Clichés are usually phrases (Look out for number one or It’s your funeral). But they can also be images (a cheery soda jerk with a pointed white hat; a cat pawing at a ball of yarn), ideas (war is hell; Californians are laid-back), or even whole scenes (the soldier comes home from the war; the lovers wake up to a magnificent sunrise).”
Pay attention to words that habitually end up on your editing room floor. If you can discover what they are, you are halfway toward swearing off of them. And if you can’t train them out of your pen, at least you’ll get faster at plucking them out later.
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Thanks for the list. It would be a great poster to keep in front of me as I write.
I’m a high school English teacher as well as a writer, and I’m forever making my kids learn new vocabulary words. If they ever complain about how many words there are to learn in the English language, I remind them that it’s a good thing because it means they have options! Maybe I should share this post with them, too …
Hi Ginny, sometimes clichéd words are the most trendy. Do a search for the most overused words of the year at the end of each year, and see if you agree. I usually do, and as result, I try to write in plain English rather than trying to impress folks with my large vocabulary. Sometimes the simplest language is the best, if you ask me.
Simple is usually best, true. I also think that half the fun of writing lies in considering the connotations and emotional feel of certain words. When my students and I read Wordsworth’s daffodils poem recently, they noticed the difference between “loneliness” and “solitude” and why the latter works best in the last stanza. It’s fun to see how the mood changes when a synonym is used.
For sure, and so much depends on intent. In writing nonfiction for general readers, word choice also comes into play. Often when coming up with fresh words to replace the overused words that almost always find their way into early drafts. Sometimes I create a new twist on old clichés, and then they are not clichés any more.