Wednesday, March 25

Day Twenty-Five: Eliminate Clichés and Trim Overwriting

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-Five of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Over the last month we’ve been working on the larger revision issues and ignoring the specifics of the text (in most cases). Our stories are now solid, our structure and various story arcs are sound, and our scenes flow smoothly from one idea to the next. The novel is “done,” and we feel comfortable that it’s good and well-written. Now it’s time to polish our literary jewels until they shine, so roll up those sleeves and let’s get into the nitty gritty of the individual word choices.

Polishing brings out the shine of a novel, illuminating what’s unique and special about the work. So it makes sense to look for passages that aren’t so fresh or might be trying too hard to get noticed.

Today, we’ll go after both cliches and purple prose.

1. Eliminate Any Clichés

Clichés are concept shorthand. They’re easy to write, they sound natural (because we hear them so often), but they can make a novel feel stale. After all, a line anyone anywhere could say is probably not the best line for a character we want to feel well developed and unique. Unless the cliché is there for a reason (such as a character who uses clichés a lot to show she's not an original thinker), it's better to cut it and look for a line that's original to the character.

If you know you’re prone to clichés (be honest), go scene by scene and rework any clichés that aren’t there for a specific purpose. Although at this stage we’re looking more at the individual text, clichés can also be found in scenes or situations, such as the classic “describe myself by looking in the mirror” trope.

(Here's more on clichés)

One problem with clichés is that we don't always realize something is a cliché. This is why people advise reading widely in your genre, so you can identify and spot the common clichés used in that genre. If you have a line or scene you're not sure about, ask yourself:
  • Does it feel "right" for that character or situation, yet also familiar?
  • Is it a "common saying" you know you've heard before?
  • Is it a line where you wrote the first half, then felt compelled to finish it with a specific phrase? Such as "I avoid the plague."
  • Is it a common metaphor or simile?
  • Is it a scene that felt like the easiest way to handle something?

2. Eliminate Word Packages

We all have our favorite phrases and words that feel so natural they practically write themselves: abject poverty, cacophony of sound, any kind of glow from any kind of light. They aren’t necessarily clichés, but they’re things we’ve heard so often they have the same feeling as a cliché—they’re word packages. It feels “wrong” to use one word without the other.

Some word packages are very book specific, like a fantasy that uses made-up swears, or a local saying that adds flavor. A little goes a long way here, and using them too often stands out and detracts from the story. Then there are common stock descriptions we fall back on, like a similar way of always describing a smell or a sound. If something sounds a little too familiar, you might check to see how often you use that line or something close to it. If you see it shows up a lot, try rewriting a few to avoid that stale prose feel.

Common places to find familiar or overused words and phrases:

Descriptions: Look for anything that feels “written.” I’ve discovered when I use certain phrases, they feel like a canned sentence. 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.

Actions: 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.

Dialog and internalization: Snappy comebacks, dry wit. These are things we also hear all the time, so it’s natural that they’d make their way into our writing. How many times have we written, “yeah, right.” “Great.” “Whatever.” “Or so he thought.” “That’s what you think.” “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

3. Revise Overwritten or Flowery Prose

Overwriting is writing that’s trying too hard to get a simple point across. The idea of the passage is stated, but the writer keeps expanding it with unnecessary words. If you ever thought to yourself, "Yeah, I get it, he was angry, move on" then you’ve probably read an overwritten passage. It can also be a shorter passage, such as one sentence that takes nine words when three words is enough.

(Here's more on overwriting)

Flowery prose (often referred to as “purple” prose) is text so filled descriptive language (adjectives, metaphors, similes, etc) it screams "hey look! I'm fancy writing" and distracts readers from the actual story. Often, you need a thesaurus to understand it.

(Here's more on flowery or purple prose)

Go through your scenes and rework any overwritten prose, or anything that feels like it’s trying too hard to be “writing.” Style plays a role here, so use your best judgment and trust your instincts. If your gut says change it, change it.

By the end of today’s session, we should have gotten rid of unnecessary clichés and world packages, and trimmed back our overwritten and flowery passages. Next, we’ll look for ways to clarify any ambiguous pronouns.

Tomorrow: Clarify Ambiguous Pronouns

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
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).  

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  1. I'm trying to do better on eliminating cliches, but I never considered word packages. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Most welcome. You can find lists of common word packages online with a little searching. (don't have any handy or I'd share--makes note to find and add links to the article). I remembering being surprised by how many I used or knew :)

  2. Thanks for this. I knew about cliches, and I work to avoid them. Word packages and overwriting came as sort of a new thing to me, and I'm eager to go hunt them out in my work.

    1. Like all things writing, they can work if the scene needs them, but most times, you're better off finding a fresher way to say what you want to say.