We all have our favorite phrases and words. They aren’t clichés, but they’re things that are heard so often they have the same feeling as a cliché. They’re words and phrases that get used all the time, either by your or other writers. They sound “right” because we see them in works we admire. But they’re “used” words, and we might be better off trying for something a little fresher.
I don’t know where the term “sodium lights” came from, I just know that I’d never heard of them until they started popping up in stories. I suspect someone wrote about them somewhere and writers all over jumped on the bandwagon. But “the orange glow from the sodium lights” was in about half the stories I read for a while (published and critiqued). Even to this day, that phrase jumps out at me every time I read it. It’s not a cliché, but a word package. Words used so often together they feel familiar.
You know the type. Beamed a smile, hair flowed down her back, cacophony of sound, any kind of glow from any kind of light. Phrases that feel so right we can’t help putting those combination of words together. These are great things to keep an eye out when you’re polishing your manuscript. Now, many of these phrases you probably use (I do too) and you don’t have to cut them if they work and say what you want to say. But they are phrases you might be using as crutches, like adverbs, weakening your writing because you’re not finding the right word for the job, just the easiest.
(Here's more on making adverbs work for you)
You’ll find most of these familiar phrases in your descriptions. Look for anything that feels “written.” I’ve discovered when I use these types of phrases, they feel like a canned sentence. It’s something I know I’ve seen other people write so it feels like that’s how it’s supposed to be used. It’s one of those things you’ll have to trust your instinct on, because everyone reads different things. Only you know what’s familiar to you.
(Here's more on determining if description is holding your story back)
Stage direction is another common place for word packages. Crept cautiously across whatever. Pressed an ear against something. A noise rang out. What your character is doing might be different, but it’s phrased in a way we’ve read a hundred times before.
(Here's more on finding the right balance with your stage directions)
Dialogue and Internalization
Snappy comebacks, dry wit. These are things that we hear all the time, so it’s natural that they’d make their way into our writing. How many times have you written: yeah, right. Great. Whatever. Or so he thought. That’s what you think. Wouldn’t you like to know. (Let’s go is one of my weaknesses)
(Here's more on writing effective dialogue)
What to Do
While not every familiar phrase has to go, it’s worth looking at each one and deciding if there’s a better way to write it. Can it be more like your protagonist’s voice? Can you write it in a way that’s more original? Can you shift some worlds around so it’s not exactly the same as what’s often used? Can it be cut entirely?
If it feels familiar, or feels like those words just belong together, (and practically type themselves) there’s a good chance you’ve read it a bunch of times before. Take a moment and see if you can be different or if that says exactly what you want it to say. It could be the difference between ho-hum prose that doesn’t surprise and prose that keeps a reader guessing.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound