What You Need To Know About Cliche

advice, novels, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.

This was very painful.

We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.

I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.

So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.

She told us “a cliche is anything  you’ve ever heard before.

This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?

Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.

Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.

I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.

But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.

Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —

Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.

94 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Cliche

  1. It’s only a cliche if you can’t argue otherwise. And while it may be important for literary elitists to be absolutely original, there is definitely something to be said for using a cliche wisely, in order to appeal to and influence less original audiences. Really you have to gauge it on who your targeted audience is.
    The other way to look at this issue, as I think you’re trying to assert, is that harsh criticism breeds quality work (of course with positive reinforcements added when needed). No criticism or too much positive feedback can breed complacency. I agree with this point, but I think it’s a best practices kind of choice for someone to be their own worst critic.
    Nice post.

  2. Yeah, you’re right — it’s probably a different mindset depending on what you’re working on, who you’re working for. I think we’re basically on the same page — aim for best practices, and then do what you can to produce and get paid.
    Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response — and the nice words.
    X JB

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