WASHINGTON, DC: In addition to nitpicking my column to death every week, Tom the Butcher also does freelance editing, so he sees a lot of manuscripts. Some of them are from elegant writers; some are, to put it mildly, not. Without naming names, Tom occasionally shares with me a particularly egregious paragraph or two from his inbox. A recent one, from an attempted serious novel, read something like this:
Evan heaved a sigh of relief. Yes, all hell had broken loose and his dream had turned into a nightmare, putting him on an emotional roller coaster. But in the wake of recent developments, there was a ray of hope, and a chance for cautious optimism.
The rampant use of cliches is a reliable mark of the hack writer, a person who either hasn’t heard of or has chosen to ignore the classic wry writerly advice: “Avoid cliches like the plague.”
It’s not always easy. What’s particularly insidious about cliches is that there is a good reason they beckon us: They come easily to mind, and, if they were original, would usually be very good writing. They became cliches in the first place because people liked and remembered them.
Maybe what we need to do is to accept that cliches will always be with us, but refresh them every few years so they don’t sound so tired: Create original, modernized expressions to mean the same thing. When they become cliches, repeat the process.
Let’s start today. I decree that “on an emotional roller coaster” becomes “riding the Bipolar Express.”
With the assistance of an online group of smartasses (devotees of The Washington Post’s
“Style Invitational” wordplay contest), I give you some more:
“Dead as a doornail” becomes “Assigned to a congressional subcommittee.”
“Sending a shiver down one’s spine” or “Someone walking over one’s grave” becomes
“Getting butt-dialed by God.”
“Heaved a sigh of relief” becomes “Got the ‘text not sent’ message on the hung-over morning after.”
“You win some, you lose some” becomes “You get some trophies, you get some trophies.”
“Woefully inadequate” becomes “Rejected by a vanity publisher.”
“All your eggs in one basket” becomes “All your files on one hard drive.”
“Covered one’s butt” becomes “Ran it by Legal.”
“When all is said and done” becomes “When Comments are closed.”
“Carrying coals to Newcastle” becomes “Carrying kale to Brooklyn.”
“Not playing with a full deck” becomes “Intel not inside.”
“That will be a cakewalk” becomes “That will be a Monday crossword puzzle.”
“Out of his league” becomes “Beyond his bandwidth.”
“Ringin’ off the hook” becomes “Buzzin’ out of my pocket.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves” becomes “Let’s not do a Microsoft release.”
“Anything-gate” becomes “Anything-ghazi.”
“Push the reset button” becomes “Wipe the server.”
“A breath of fresh air” becomes “A microchip-activated spritz of Febreze.”
“Took the easy way out” becomes “Crowdsourced a column.”
Thanks for the help: Rachel Manteuffel, Daphne Steinberg, Gil Glass, Sharon Wright Bower, Gabriel ChaPumple, Michael Gips, Pia Zammit, Mike Creveling, Colin Ward, Phil Frankenfeld, Marni Penning Coleman, Bruce Alter, Damon Thompson and Jeffrey Contompasis.
© 2015 The Washington Post Writers Group