Could cliches help writing?

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world for material to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about how cliches help writing…

I abhor cliches — even though they spill out of my mouth with alarming frequency.

As a result, a recent post by Kathryn Craft grabbed my attention. Appearing on the Writer Unboxed website, under the headline, “6 Ways Clichés Can Help Your Writing,” the post argues for the surprising merits of cliches. 

Here are the six points Craft makes:

1. Clichés are true. As Craft says, “Why else would they be overused?”

2. Clichés make a convenient placeholder while drafting. This is precisely how I use clichés. They are terrific for first drafts because they allow me to write quickly and easily. I deal with them only when I’m editing.

3. Clichés provide a recognizable jumping off point for your own creativity. Take the cliché and spin it into something more interesting. Here’s an example Craft cites from the novel My Grandmother Wants to Tell You She’s Sorry, by Frederik Backman: “The woman takes such a deep breath that if you threw a coin into it you’d never hear it hit the bottom.”

4. Clichéd characterization is a fast track to shame. Here the trick is to show how your characters (real or fictional) want to avoid becoming cliched. Most readers will be sympathetic to that notion.

5. Clichés can sketch a quick background. Clichéd characters can provide a backdrop that will make other — more important — characters look good by comparison.

6. Clichés provide a welcome shorthand in a publishing query. Book categories such as sci fi, coming-of-age and romance are all clichés, but they work because the industry uses them as shorthand. If you can speak the industry “language” you stand a better chance of being accepted.

As Craft concludes: “Clichés are here to stay, so best think of them as a playground. You might be looking at the same old array of swings, slides, monkey bars, and merry-go-rounds, but there are an infinite number of ways to play with them.”

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