Writing Tip: Avoiding Cliches

Clichés are tired old phrases and sayings that we have heard over and over again. For example, take the sentence, “Her fingers were cold as …” Grown-ups are automatically tempted to finish with the word “ice,” because they have heard that phrase so many times before. That’s what makes it a tired old cliché.

But young writers are not hampered by clichés because they haven’t heard many of them yet. That’s why young writers can often produce much fresher writing than adults. For example, a child writing “Her fingers were cold as…” might finish with “Popsicles” instead of “ice” — which is a much better way to say it! So, to young writers, I say: Sometimes it pays to be young!

A first grade teacher once decided to demonstrate just how original and “fresh” children could be. She collected a list of old proverbs and gave the first half of each one to her class. She asked the children to fill in the second half of the saying. Most of them didn’t know the sayings, and so made up their own–very creative–endings.

Kids: you can try doing this yourself. Here’s the list of sayings, with just the first half. Fill in the missing half of the proverb. (If you know the proverb, make up a different ending.)

Teachers: For fun, you can give this list to your class and see what they come up with.

Better to be safe than___________________________.

Strike while the__________________________________.

It’s always darkest just before____________________.

Never underestimate the power of___________________.

You can lead a horse to water, but_________________.

Don’t bite the hand that___________________________.

No news is ____________________________________.

A miss is as good as_______________________________.

You can’t teach an old dog_________________________.

The pen is mightier than___________________________.

Where there is smoke, there’s______________________.

A penny saved is ________________________________.

Children should be seen and not____________________.

If at first you don’t succeed________________________.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and _______________________.

* Here are the first graders’ answers, along with the “right” answers (in parentheses). Were yours as creative?

Better to be safe than…punch a fifth grader. (…sorry)

Strike while the…bug is close. (…iron is hot)

It’s always darkest just before…Daylight Savings Time. (…dawn)

You can lead a horse to water, but…how? (…you can’t make him drink)

Don’t bite the hand that…is dirty. (…feeds you)

No news is…impossible. (…good news)

A miss is as good as…a Mr. (…a mile)

You can’t teach an old dog…math. (…new tricks)

The pen is mightier than…the pigs. (…the sword)

Where there is smoke, there’s…pollution. (…fire)

A penny saved is…not much. (…a penny earned)

Children should be seen and not…spanked or grounded. (…heard)

If at first you don’t succeed…get new batteries.(…try, try again)

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you…have to blow your nose. (…cry alone)

Make Up Your Own ‘Cliché’!

* Now see if you can finish these short phrases with something fresh and original. Avoid the obvious cliché.

(For example, “As cold as ice” is a cliché. “As cold as a Popsicle” is fresh and unique.)

As slow as ______________.

As stiff as _____________.

As dead as _____________.

As flat as _____________.

As quiet as _____________.

As tough as_____________.

As dull as ______________.

Did you avoid saying “As slow as molasses, As stiff as a board, As dead as a doornail, As flat as a pancake, As quiet as a mouse, As tough as nails, As dull as dishwater?” If so, then you are on your way to fresher, more colorful writing!


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