The Ten Commandments of Writing

  1. Since Thou Art a Creative Writer, Thou Shalt Not Use Clichés
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Through the years, these commandments about honoring God and parents and avoiding mistakes such as lying, stealing, adultery, and murder, among others, have provided a basic code of human behavior for both believers and nonbelievers. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The first commandment of writing follows.

Since thou art a creative writer, thou shalt not use clichés.

A cliché is, basically, an overused phrase or expression such as, “I’m hungry as a horse,” or “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” or “They’re selling like hotcakes.” The first time you hear a cliché, you may think, “Wow, that’s a neat little phrase,” and you may be tempted to use it yourself. After you’ve heard the same phrase a few hundred times, however, you realize the phrase has lost its vitality and its effectiveness. That’s when you need to come up with a new way to express an old idea or, at the least, tweak the cliché just a bit to give it an added twist. After all, you don’t want your words to sound like everyone else’s words.

Imagine, for a second, the following scenario. You’re a young man, and you’ve finally secured a date with the most beautiful girl on campus. When you pick her up, you notice that she has a fancy, new dress for the occasion and a new hairdo, and she looks even more beautiful than before. You look at her in amazement and say, “You are as pretty as a picture.”

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

When you use a weak cliché like that, one of three things might happen: she will laugh at you, she will slap you, or she will ask you to leave. Obviously, then, you can avoid those unpleasant possibilities by being a bit more creative. You need to put as much effort and energy into the words of your compliment as she put into her preparation for that special first date.

You need to say something like, “You are more beautiful that the aurora borealis on a summer’s night in the Canadian Rockies,” or “You look like a cover model for Mademoiselle magazine.” Whatever you come up with in that situation, you need to make sure that it’s original.

For example, when I ask my Composition classes to rewrite the cliché “pretty as a picture,” most students come up with some variation on one of the following two phrases: “pretty as a flower” or “pretty as a sunset.” These two phrases are a little better than “pretty as a picture,” but they’re not much better. The similarity among the responses occurs because the first new phrase that pops into one person’s head may also pop into someone else’s head.

“The orange sky over the desert with yucca palm trees in Joshua Tree National Park.” by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

Thus, you may need to write down — and throw out — four or five new phrases before you come up with something that is unique and effective.

For instance, I had one student, a football fan, write the following line: “pretty as a Super Bowl touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Randy Moss.” Another student — a fashionable, but frugal, young woman — wrote, “pretty as a 70% sale in the ladies’ department at Macy’s.” These lines are effective because they are original and because they reveal something about the authors and what’s important to them.

One of the funniest scenes in the 1988 baseball movie Bull Durham occurs when Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) teaches Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) how to use clichés. LaLoosh is a young pitcher who will freely say exactly what’s on his mind. Davis, however, the veteran catcher, tells LaLoosh that as a professional athlete, it’s usually better to use clichés to say nothing whatsoever. Professional athletes, after all, don’t want to say anything that might give the opposition inside information or added motivation. As a writer, however, you need to take the opposite approach. You need to avoid clichés and definitely say something of value in your essays and your term papers.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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