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Getting Rid of Clichés

By David Marks
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #52, 2003.

Avoiding cliches in your writing.
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David Marks

Editors aren't proofreading books like they used to twenty years ago. Today it's very common to find typos, mistakes in grammar and even clichés. I may find trite expressions particularly bothersome because of my training in junior high school in the early 1940's. English teachers then were death on their use. This may make me a dinosaur, but I find their use evidence of sloppy writing. Still, in a recent New York Times best-seller novel I found the expression, "He stopped in his tracks," used three times in one chapter. Even if the use of trite expressions doesn't bother you, you still must recognize that their use signals a lack of care by a writer.

If you train your children to avoid clichés, it will give them additional opportunities to use their imaginations and require them to be more critical with their choice of words. Both of these results of your training will be worth the extra effort it takes to show your children how to avoid employing over-used expressions.

The use of clichés is a problem for young people because they don't recognize them and they are colorful and descriptive. (That's why they've been used enough to become clichés.) It's easy for us adults to spot them because of the reading we do, but young writers may have run into an expression just once and liked it. To them, it wasn't worn-out at all!

Just pointing trite expressions out to your children does not give them enough help. I remember using clichés when I was in school. The teacher told me to create my own expressions. I didn't know how to do that. It was very frustrating. They must be shown how to create expressions that are original and fresh. This is hard to do and does take practice. As an example, a child might write, "He woke with a start." We both have read that expression many times. We don't find it in what is called literature, but it is used in best-sellers all the time. I'm sure you've had the same experience in your reading. It really bothers me, and your children's college teachers may be equally bothered by it. Your children should be aware of this.

To show a young writer how to create fresh expressions is hard. You'll have to work with the idea for a bit to get used to it, but the results of this effort are very rewarding. Below is a fictional conversation demonstrating the process.

Mom: I really like what you've written about the old man and his nightmare, but there's one thing that I would suggest that might make it more powerful for your reader.

Grace: What's that?

Mom: When you say: "He woke with a start," you're using a cliché and that weakens the image for your reader.

Grace: Why does it weaken it?

Mom: Because when a thing's been said so many times, it loses its power. The reason you like that expression is because you haven't seen it in print very many times and it is a good description of how the man wakes up. But people who are older and have been reading for a long time have read it so many times that we're used to it and it doesn't work so well for us.

Grace: But if I say just, "He woke up," it doesn't sound so good, either.

Mom: Right. You'll have to make up your own, new expression.

Grace: How does someone do that? (Boy, when kids ask you that question, you're in a great spot to really help!)

Mom: Let's talk through the process this time and then you can try it by yourself the next time you realize you've just used a cliché.

Grace: Sure, what do I do?

Mom: I'll ask you some questions and we'll see what happens.

Grace: Okay.

Mom: You have an image in your mind of how the man wakes up, don't you?

Grace: Sure. It was with a start.

Mom: Good point, Grace, but describe what that's like.

Grace: He was sleeping really quietly and was still, but when he woke up, he jerked awake.

Mom: Now you're getting it. That isn't bad just like that, but it's still almost a cliché. Describe how he jerks awake.

Grace: What do you mean? He just jerked awake.

Mom: What do his arms do?

Grace: They jerked when he first woke up.

Mom: Describe what they do.

Grace: Jerked.

Mom: Sure. But, how?

Grace: I don't know, like someone pulled a string and lifted them up.

Mom: Excellent. I can see that, and it's a fresh way to say jerked. What do his eyes do?

Grace: The same thing. They snapped open.

Mom: Careful, that's another one.

Grace: Another what?

Mom: You can't say, "His eyes snapped open." It's a cliché.

Grace: This sure isn't easy.

Mom: That's why there aren't many good writers. It's something that's hard to do well.

Grace: How do I say he opened his eyes fast?

Mom: You tell me.

Grace: They popped open?

Mom: The same thing again. How do they pop open?

Grace: I see what you're doing. Okay, how's this? "He opened his eyes like taking the cork out of a bottle."

Mom: That's sure a new way to say it. But it might be hard for your reader to get from a bottle to a sleeping old man. Can you think of an animal which wakes up like the man does?

Grace: Sure, our cat does.

Mom: When?

Grace: When she hears something like a mouse or a strange noise.

Mom: Good. I can see that, too. Try it.

Grace: He jerked awake like a cat when it hears a mouse.

Mom: Not bad, but I don't think we have it yet. What else jerks when it wakes up.

Grace: I don't know.

Mom: It doesn't have to be a person or an animal. It could be anything that starts with jerky movements.

Grace: Like the can opener?

Mom: Maybe. When it's running it does sound like a man snoring, but it doesn't jerk awake.

Grace: I know. Our old car started like that.

Mom: Good idea. Describe what it did.

Grace: When it was cold out and we started it, it ground and ground but suddenly it coughed and then roared to life.

Mom: Careful.

Grace: With what?

Mom: "Roared to life."

Grace: Not another one.

Mom: Sure is, but work some more with the man waking up like a car starting.

Grace: The old man snored loudly like an old car trying to start, but coughed once and jerked awake.

Mom: That's not bad. I like it. Let's work with it a bit. Remember the arms? It would be good to get them in, somehow.

Grace: Like a cold car trying to start, the old man snored on, but then woke like an old car shaking awake.

Mom: Sounds good, but you've used old car and cold car. Can you cut one out?

Grace: I don't know. Let's see: Like a cold car trying to start, the old man snored then coughed awake.

Mom: Much better. Let's work with the car trying to start. What did that sound like:

Grace: Like our coffee grinder.

Mom: Try that.

Grace: Like a cold car grinding to a start, the old man snored then coughed awake.

Mom: We're close now. But, you have the old man starting and then snoring. Can you reverse those two words?

Grace: Boy!

Mom: We've almost got it.

Grace: OK. The old man snored like a cold car grinding to a start, then coughed awake.

Mom: Great. You almost have it. But we still need to get the arms in there.

Grace: This better do it, I'm getting tired. Snoring like a cold car grinding to a start, the old man coughed awake, thrashing his arms and sputtering.

Mom: Boy, is that nice. I'm really proud of you. Use it. It's new and it's all yours.

Grace: Thanks for the gift.

Mom: You wrote it. All I did was ask you questions.

If this conversation had really taken place, the young writer would have created a fresh way to say, "He woke with a start," and a parent would have had a wonderful time working with a child's imagination. A great opportunity for both.

This is a fairly long and quite idealized conversation, and they never go as smoothly as this example. But, it wouldn't help to give you an example that didn't work, would it? Try working this way with your young writers. Once you get used to leading your students through the process of solving their own writing problems, instead of just telling them how to do it, you'll get wonderful results. It's a great way to interact with your children. You'll soon find that you're working together and not just pointing out errors to them.

One final note: The rules of discussion of literature, as with all art, dictate that each element be discussed in present tense. This is easier to see in talking about painting or sculpture. We have no trouble saying, "Picasso's 'Guitar Player' leans over his instrument," because every time we look at the picture, the guitar player is leaning over. But this is sometimes awkward in talking with young writers about their work. It's so important for young people to get used to this, I used to insist on the present tense being used when my students and I talked about what they had written. You might try it.

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