The Red Pen: That is such a cliché


What they are

I am an editor and an English teacher to the core. What this means is that I’ve been known to take love notes from the well-meaning suitors of my children and students, red pen them, and send them back.  All’s fair in love and war, but not in writing: a comma splice might get you the side eye from one of my grammatical minions, but a cliché will get you kicked to the curb.

Clichés make my blood boil. They’re old as the hills. They’re ugly as sin. Avoid them—wait for it!—like the plague.

These are some of the most obvious and egregious culprits, of course. But there are others. Are you guilty of dragging down your writing with any of these stale phrases?

this day and age (especially if you’re writing it this day in age)

in today’s society

the vast majority

(my personal favorite) – throughout the history of mankind

If you can hear the voice of Morgan Freeman narrating your writing (with unintentional irony), you might be using clichés.

(And don’t even get me started on narrative clichés and hackneyed plot formulas. That’s another post entirely.)

How to spot them

Often, you can catch clichés in your writing by reading aloud. Reading your work out loud at every stage of your drafting is beneficial, and hearing your voice slip into the familiar cadence of a cliché will force you to edit with special care.

Another way to catch commonplaces is to use apps meant to flag them for you. The website has a cut-and-paste text box that, with the press of a button, will show you any cringe-worthy moments of literary laziness, like this one:

cliche clip

What to do with them

Look at every cliché as an opportunity. There are two routes you can take when you find them. First, you can rid yourself of the cliché entirely, like this:

Terror made me as cruel as the grave.

In this case, as cruel as the grave seems redundant as well as trite.

Eliminate it, and you’ve got a gem of sparseness from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: “Terror made me cruel . . . .”

Your other option is to go for originality and create an image that resonates. Stephen Crane could have just written about seeing the light of day if he was feeling lazy, but instead he came up with this gorgeous simile in The Red Badge of Courage:

“In the eastern sky there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun; and against it, black and patternlike, loomed the gigantic figure of the colonel . . . .”

Bottom line

Clichés aren’t the end of the world. (See how easily they slip in there?) They’re chances for you to recognize bad writing habits and improve, whether by pruning stale prose or breathing new life into a tired phrase.



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.

Can’t cut your clichés? Click here to learn about Pink Umbrella Editing Services, and follow our blog for writing and editing tips.

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