Cliches typically result from a lack of attention or from a certain amount of indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write. But while they save you effort, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.
One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully attend to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.
I recently read Sightlines, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each piece. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:
The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.
Or, from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:
The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.
In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.
Before describing someone as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say? What does it mean?
Reading good writing can help remind you to observe the world more carefully. So can being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.