Readers Hate Clichés. Except When They Don’t.

Helga Schier

Clichés weren’t always clichés.

Once they were creative images or poignant observations that became clichés over time, precisely because they worked so well and were used so often. Everyone knows what you mean when you say, “it fits like a glove.” In a conversation, the very fact that everyone knows what you mean makes your point. But clichés are predictable, and writing should never be predictable.

Be Personal

When you write, hunt down your clichéd images and replace them with your own. Perhaps you could say “it fits like a black cat on Friday the 13th” or “like milk and brownies,” but that’s still pretty clichéd. So how about “like retainers on teeth” or “like a mouse on a mouse pad.” I came up with these last two images as I was typing on my computer right after a meeting with my son’s orthodontist. I mention this not to say that these images are great—they are not—I say this to illustrate that it is not only okay but vital to use your own world to create new images.

Don’t Be Obscure

Your images can and should be new and personal, but they cannot be so personal that they are obscure. If I were to say, “it fits like the old castle in the vineyard,” most people could not relate. Does this mean it fits well or does it mean the exact opposite? I’m referring to the castle in my hometown Esslingen, Germany, which is perfectly nestled into the vineyard surrounding it. But, unless you’ve been there, you have no idea what exactly I mean. So, when writing, think about your readers and whether they can decipher your personal symbolism. If your imagery is innovative and personal while it perfectly suits your story or article, your readers will likely find the tools to decipher your imagery within your writing.

Surprise Your Readers

While you should avoid cliché and stereotypes, staying away from them altogether is not necessary. You could use a clichéd phrase as an identifying mark for a character. Or, you could use stereotypical behavior not to lull your readers to sleep with a predictable set of ideas, but to surprise them. Let a mother be the one who leaves clothes all over the living room floor while her teenage son cleans up after her. But go a step further, and do so not to describe a neglectful mother or a dysfunctional family, but a caring mother and a perfectly normal family with … well, a mom who does not fit the stereotype. Not only will turning the stereotype upside down give your readers an instant and instinctive grasp of the unique relationship between this mother and her son, it will also keep your readers on their toes, and make them turn the pages to see how else you will surprise them.