“Don’t shoot me,” editor Jessica Morrell wrote in a note accompanying her eleven page, single-spaced list of suggestions for my novel.

Thank you Alexander Friend, Don’t Shoot Me  

She found plotting errors and many other problems, most of which I knew about but couldn’t face alone. This is what a good editor does, provides a useful cheat sheet.

What surprised me was the number of hackneyed phrases she found. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s a habit, soaking up word-fads. My current verbal tic? Awesome. Groovy passed my lips in the 1970s, and not as joke.

Thanks Erica Zabowski for the image

But in my sweated-over novel? Surely not.

Oh, yes.

Couldn’t make heads or tails. At a snail’s pace. Duck to water.

Clichés aren’t all bad. They develop character, set a tone, signal a genre. One of the highest-grossing debut novels of the decade is loaded with clichés.

“I feel the build up, … pushing me higher, higher to the castle in the air;”
“My heart is hammering like I’ve run forty blocks chased by the hounds of hell.” Source: Buzzfeed
“”My inner goddess is beside herself, hopping from foot to foot. Anticipation hangs heavy and portentous over my head like a dark tropical storm cloud. Butterflies flood my belly – as well as a darker, carnal, captivating ache as I try to imagine what he will do to me. …” Source: Mic


Not that I would know this first hand, not having actually read Fifty Shades of Gray.  I have it on good authority though. It is reportedly is so full of banalities it inspired a slew of articles listing the best and worst ones. E.L James is laughing all the way to the bank, I’m sure.


So, porn-writers, you get corny and over-used metaphors. Me? I have a new appreciation for how easy it is to slip in tired old phrases, and how hard it is to find the perfect word.

Here’s my new anti-cliché watch list:

For intentional use only:
a book by its cover
a long shelf life
a snail’s pace
avoid like the plague
back to the drawing board
beg the question
break the glass ceiling
broken record
broke the bank
castle in the air
cat got your tongue
climbing the ladder of success
couldn’t make heads or tails
don’t burn your bridges behind you
don’t cry over spilled milk
dressed to kill
duck to water
every cloud has a silver lining
falling in love
go climb a tree
hackneyed phrases
handle with care
let her hair down
selling like hotcakes
light as a feather
money doesn’t grow on trees
more bang for your buck
racking our brains (yes it’s rack, not wrack)
riled up
so to speak
spitting image
the rest is history
think outside the box
throw (someone) under the bus
time is money
when it rains, it pours
when life throws you lemons

Have more for me?


Cover photo: Daniel Frei


  • Good for you for not shooting the messenger! Good writers are distinguished by the attention they pay and by their willingness to submit to the editor’s pen. After all, it’s not like any of us intend to go into the important meeting with spinach between our teeth–we need someone with an outside perspective to catch its presence.

    And clichés are clichés for a reason! They’re evocative, they tell a lot with a few words. However, I do try to avoid them unless a character is using one in dialogue (internal or external) and the cliché will add something to the reader’s understanding of that character.


    • Submission is a good way to describe the editing process. Let’s call it Level A submission (before the real submission), when you prostrate yourself, accept the impossible thing you are trying to do, then let someone who knows the way point out that your Sisyphean boulder is still ahead, and it’s already been how many years? Really trying not to use cliché here. Cheers —


  • indeed – “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha! Wash your hair before you go to the hairdresser?

      My manuscript was edited. Read it aloud to a writer’s group, too, who heard it chapter by chapter. They were kind and supportive. Kind and supportive is not actually a good sign. There were big problems. Not willing to give up, I hired someone to take it off my hands for awhile. Considered it graduate school fees.

      Taking on fiction at this time in my life might not have been my best idea. Still, It has deepened my worship of good prose. An excellent book is magic, writers our wizards.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I’ll often use clichés as place holders–something to put in the first draft until I can find something better in the second draft. Sometimes, however, I’ll have characters use a cliché in dialogue. We all do that in real life, and having a character say something strange just to avoid using a cliché could make the dialogue sound unnatural.

    I’ve never read 50 Shades, but like you, I imagine the author is laughing all the way to the bank. Speaking of clichés… 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, right! Place holders. For a draft. That’s what all those trite phrases are!

      That’s the thing. Real dialogue between real people is full of now I’m munnuh’s instead of now I’m going to’s, um’s, run-on sentences and clichés. The best writers edit out what we don’t hear in our own speech.

      Liked by 1 person

  • I think it’s impossible not to fall back on hackneyed phrases. They’re stuck in our minds. I’m guilty of adding unnecessary words and phrases such as “kind of” and “sort of” and my favorite “rather like”

    Liked by 1 person

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