This post is a recent piece by Michael Massing from the New York Times. Here’s a link to the original.
The piece consists entirely of a remarkably inclusive list of common cliche’s used by writers in English. An impressive display, I think you’ll agree.
As all writers know, it’s hard to avoid using cliches. A cliche is a metaphor that’s been beaten to death. The problem is that metaphors are incredibly important for effective prose. A metaphor can take a flat and literal account and enrich its meaning by showing how it’s like something else that is familiar but superficially quite different. It can borrow from an alternative framework to throw fresh light on the subject. Like turning an abstraction (subject) into something visual (fresh light). The problem, as my example demonstrates, is that it’s hard to do this without drawing on a cliche. In fact, it’s hard as hell to avoid cliches even when you’re attacking them. Which is why Massing avoids the problem by simply listing the cliches, leaving the reader to figure out the point. And which is why I probably should have done the same.
But I wanted to exemplify the problem to help show how hard it is to avoid dipping into the deep pool of cliches when you’re writing. There’s only so creative that a writer can be, so just as we rely on the same vocabulary as others who use the language, we also rely on a lot of the same metaphors. And once the latter are used often enough, they grow into cliches. Which leaves you with the option of resigning yourself to literalism over metaphor or coming up with a metaphor that is new but also appropriate and not terribly strained. It ain’t easy.
Try going through a day without using one of the cliches in Massing’s list. I know I can’t do it.
Tip of the Iceberg
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