11 Techniques for Transforming Clichéd Phrasings

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From Writers Helping Writers:

One of the things that pumps me up the most when I’m reading a book is when the author phrases things in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be a familiar concept or image—red hair, an urban street, fear—but when it’s written differently, I’m able to visualize that thing in a new way, as if I’m seeing it from a new angle.

. . . .

This idea of turning tired phrases into new and interesting ones has intrigued me for a while—so much so that I have a notebook full of samples I’ve found in various books. When I get stuck trying to describe something in my own writing, I study those passages to see how the author was able to put a new twist on a well-used phrase. As a result, I’ve figured out a couple of tricks for how we can amp up our descriptions for both fiction and nonfiction works.

The beauty of these techniques is that they work for settings, physical features, character emotion—all kinds of descriptions.

1) Ask Questions to Drill Down and Find the Perfect Phrase

Writing is hard work. Sometimes, when we get hung up on a certain passage, it’s easiest to fall back on the phrasings that are most comfortable: butterflies in the stomach, snow that sparkles like diamonds, a peaches-and-cream complexion, etc. To move beyond these clichés, focus on one aspect of the description and experiment with new ways to describe it. Take this sentence, for instance:

Her eyes are like the lit end of a cigarette, burning into me.
~Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko

What a great way to express an angry gaze. You can almost imagine the author’s brainstorming process: How do the eyes burn? What do they look like as they’re burning? What description could I use that expresses both the anger in her eyes and the way they make the viewpoint character feel? This is a great example of how a potentially clichéd phrase can be freshened up with a little extra thought and effort.

2) Mix Up The Senses

Oftentimes, our passages fall flat because they’re described with the most obvious senses: objects have visual descriptors, and sounds are given auditory comparisons. But mixing the senses can often create a fuller, more layered description.

Their voices were loud and rough and had the sharp edges of crushed-up beer cans. ~Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu

Here, two of the senses are employed to show us how the voices sound: auditory (loud and rough) and textural (the sharp edges of beer cans). Mixing the senses not only makes for unexpected descriptions, it’s also a great way to add dimension and draw readers a bit more into the story.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

3 thoughts on “11 Techniques for Transforming Clichéd Phrasings”

  1. And an observation:

    All cliches once started life as perfect phrases that described a moment to perfection. In doing so they entered the lexicon and from over use evolved into the cliches we know and love today.

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