Although some people defend the use of well-worn metaphors (such as “beating a dead horse”) as common language we can all visualize and understand, clichés that turn up unintentionally in writing really bother me.
One of my goals in life is to scrub every cliché I encounter from my own writing, and from the writing of others. I do use them in speech (when I talk) but even then, I try not to. (It helps me not use them in writing if I avoid using them in speech; it’s a type of practice.) There are exceptions, but in general: clichés are the lazy way. It is HARD not to use clichés. Clichés are like germs, or maybe viruses. We read them everywhere, we hear them everywhere, and so they infect us and seep into our writing. Work against this! Join the fight to improve the written word! Try to find better, more interesting ways to say things. Or try simply omitting the clichés you find. (There are usually too many words in most stories.) Your reader will thank you. I am always refreshed to read work that has few or no clichés. It makes me know that the writer is taking the words (and the work) seriously. If you use clichés, make sure you are CHOOSING them, that you are aware of them; make sure you are not just using them by default. It’s possible to twist clichés around, which serves to illuminate the fact of using a cliché in a sort of ironic way. For instance, Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) performs this procedure regularly, and gets away with it well–but he is a sophisticated writer, and he is using the visual media of film and television, so he has an easier time indicating that he intends it to be ironic. But in prose, why not choose something more interesting?
Here’s another thing to consider: Should your work some day be translated into another language, you show mercy to the translator by making your writing free of clichés.
How to recognize a cliché: Usually, if there is a phrase or metaphor you have heard many times, it is a cliché. When in doubt, go to:
Clichesite.com: Perhaps the largest collection of clichés online: http://www.clichesite.com/
Grammar Girl: How to avoid using clichés: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-avoid-cliches.aspx
According to Grammar Girl’s site:
“Good writers avoid clichés wherever they might lurk. Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
(I stole this excellent graphic from Wikipedia’s entry on cliches.)