Writing Clichés

Have you ever been all bent out of shape? Or as busy as a one-armed paper hanger? Or as snug as a bug in a rug? To someone who learned English as a second language, these expressions are hard to understand, but for most of us, we know exactly what they mean. To be bent out of shape has nothing to do with whether our arms or legs have developed an unusual shape. It means to be upset or angry. Try to imagine hanging wallpaper. It is a challenging job, but to do it with just one hand? It might be impossible. But the expression – as busy as a one-armed paper hanger – is not about hiring the disabled. It is about feeling so overwhelmed, that we just don’t know where to begin. And are bugs in a rug really snug? Or are they hungry, waiting for the family pet to return so they can suck some more blood? When we tuck our children in bed and kiss them on the forehead, and tell them to be as snug as a bug in a rug, we are not actually calling them bloodsucking fleas. We are telling them to sleep well.

So what is all this rambling about? This is not an English lesson, but a discussion of clichés.

A cliché is an expression that is over-used.

It was at one time an original saying, and it was clever and cute, but it has become so common that it no longer interests us. It may even irritate us, because it’s so trite.

We will never eliminate clichés from our culture.  We say them, and that makes them clichés. We need to teach them to our children, so they can understand the culture in which they live. But we do NOT need to use them in our writing! In fact, you should forbid yourself from using clichés in your writing!

Find a new way to say it! Be original!

You might never come up with the next clever saying that becomes the next cliché, but neither should you annoy and bore your readers by repeating vague, overused expressions.

Here is a partial list of clichés I’ve come across recently in the books I’ve either read for fun or have edited:

eyes as big as saucers
the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
actions speak louder than words
all talk and no action
an arm and a leg
at the end of my rope
at the drop of a hat
at the crack of dawn
back against the wall
a basket case
be in the same boat
better late than never
better safe than sorry
big as life
bite the bullet
bored to tears
by the book
wrap this up
get down to it
can of worms
chip on your shoulder
clear as mud
cute as a button
dead ringer
down the hatch
dumber than a box of rocks

There are many, many more such clichés! You can find more extensive lists if you are interested. The point isn’t to embarrass anyone for being “caught” using a cliché. Only to point out clichés, why you shouldn’t use them, and to encourage you to “put on your thinking cap” and “bite the bullet” as you “get down to it.” I’m sure that once you “see with your eyes wide open” you will “wrap this up” and move on to “greener pastures.”

Happy writing!


  1. Courage says:

    Some cliches bother me more than others. “eyes as big as saucers” seems dumb to me, because it is so old, and so over-used. But dumber than a box of rocks still makes me laugh. I guess it depends on the context. But yes – when I see some of these cliches, I cringe. Thank heavens for the delete key!

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