Writers & Clichés

An Exercise For Your Muse

Writers nowadays are urged to avoid overworked clichés. I’ve seen some writers come up with interesting metaphors and similes to replace the standard ones, but one must be careful that the new phrases don’t seem contrived.

You can say, “She was as angry as a picknicker when ants carried off the peach pie,” for “She was as mad as a wet hen,” but are you gaining? Instead of, “He was chomping at the bit,” you could say “He was like the guy with an appointment, waiting for a never-ending train,” but it’ll shoot up your word count.

At a writer’s group meeting one day we received sheets with old clichés or idioms. We were to pass them around and substitute something original to replace the old and overworked. In the course of sorting old papers I came across one of these this morning, so I’ll post it for you readers to ponder:

How would you modernize ‘He can’t see the forest for the trees’?

Some suggestions offered by our group:
The literal approach:
— He’s so close to the problem he can’t see the answer.
— Missing the broad point of view, he’s distracted by unimportant things.
— He needs to take a step back and get a better perspective.

The figurative approach:
— The fog is hiding the water.
— He couldn’t see the moon for the flock of geese.

Which would you choose — any other suggestions — or would you been inclined, in your own writing, to stick with the original since it’s so well know?

6 thoughts on “Writers & Clichés

  1. This is a great post! I’d be inclined to go for ‘he can’t see the dawn for the dusk’ or ‘he can’t see the tide for the waves’. Maybe something with a little comedy maybe? I like to use common phrases and add some comedy to them. Something like: ‘Forget not being able to see the the forest for the trees. Right now Dwight Banks couldn’t see the TV because of the head of his stupid three-year-old. It perhaps wasn’t wise to refer to your three-year-old son as stupid, but it was that type of Monday morning.’

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    • I really like that “can’t see the tide for the waves” version — though someone who knows the sea may dispute it. As to the stupid three-year-old, I suspect most editors would nix that bit. Plus you include a lot more words to prove he didn’t really mean it, but was just in a bad mood. Maybe ‘He couldn’t see the TV for his three-year-old, stalled in front with his pull-toy.’ Thanks for your comment.

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      • Being an editor myself, I would totally leave that part in their – only because it fits my genre (crime fiction) and I love the way sentences like that introduce some comedy to the piece!

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      • Thanks for your insight. To each his own, I guess. Maybe in your genre it works. It’d be an instant minus point for that dad in my books, not a bit humorous.(I’m sensitive: growing up I got so much “You’re so bloody stupid!” Not fun.)

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    • There was a lot of wisdom packed into those old sayings. “Least said, soonest mended” would need fifty words to replace it. Some cliches, like “It’s raining cats and dogs” are probably due for replacement.

      I read a book lately that had some pretty creative metaphors. Alas, I tend to forget book titles as soon as I read them, but maybe I can pull this one up from my e-reader and find a few. Thanks for leaving your comment.

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