Beware the C-Word

Never tell me you’ve never felt this way before, that your love interest has a heart of ice (or gold), or that something dramatic happened that changed your life forever. Use your words.

Clichés are a trademark of the rookie writer. Avoiding them is something every writer struggles with, mostly because clichés are so embedded into our daily lives that we may not even notice them slipping into our writing. But they must absolutely be avoided.

This is a great danger in memoirs and autobiographical fiction. In the desire to express yourself in a way that will appeal to your readers, you may find yourself reaching for those proven phrases. Resist! Universal appeal is good, but while clichés are more or less universal, they are rarely appealing.

Not that you can never write a cliché. That’s what first drafts are for. Chances are that you started with a cliché, then went on to say the same thing in your own words later in the paragraph. Or perhaps you ended your unique and insightful description with a tired phrase. That’s why God gave us the delete button.

Editing your own work is always hard. As William Faulkner said, you must kill your darlings. Your darlings are the words you have lovingly assembled, likely in the wee hours of the night, alone, by candlelight.  But I think you will find that clichés become clichés because they are true, not because they are you. Clichés do sound good, so it’s tempting to keep them in the text, but they are not yours to keep.

So you must kill those clichés because writing is about saying something no one else can say, simply because no one else is you. Clichés reflect a lack of voice. By looking deeply into your true thoughts, you will find your voice; clichés won’t even be an issue if you approach your memoir this way.

Your voice is worth hearing. You know it is worth hearing when you have the irresistible urge to challenge your pen to a fight to the death with your thoughts. Don’t do your own ideas the injustice of stealing someone else’s words (everyone else’s, for that matter).

I suggest that you do a special proofread (because you know you will do several) focusing solely on finding clichés. Beware of ones that sneak in slightly reworded. They have to go, too.

Clichés often occur at the beginning of manuscripts, reflecting an attempt for universal human appeal: you know, the “I never thought this would happen to me,” the “it started out as an ordinary day,” even the writer’s default, “I was an observer, content to watch all that happened around me, until one day a beautiful woman appeared and changed everything.” Any acquisitions editor will take lines like these as a hint to move on to the next submission. And readers, the people you are actually writing for, want to know what makes your story interesting and unique, worth reading a whole book about. You hook them in with a unique experience, and most important, your unique perspective. If you find yourself reaching for those clichés, it’s because you haven’t delved deeply enough into your own thoughts. It may even be painful to do so, but welcome to writing! You will be impressed with what you can come up with.

Note: This writer deleted a handful of clichés from this very document.

5 Books on Writing Every Shannon & Elm Aspiring Author Should Read

Elements of Style by Strunk and White 

elements of styleI shouldn’t have to say this, but I will anyway. Read this book. I once read that every writer should reread this book once a year: not a bad idea. The new version even has fun pictures. Some may say a book on grammar is an unbearably boring read, but I genuinely enjoy reading this book annually.  Hilariously peevish, this book will set you straight on your grammar essentials.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

eats shoots and leaves

As someone who is especially offended by incorrect punctuation usage, I highly recommend this book. You need to master everything it contains. Just do it. Don’t worry; it’s funny, too.

On Writing by Stephen King

on writing Like the first two books on this list, King’s memoir/writing guide belongs near the top of all similar lists and on every writer’s bookshelf. Leave it to the master of horror to write the most engaging and heartfelt guide to writing and life, ever.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

bird by birdLamott does not shy away from the brutal, painful, unglamorous aspects of writing. She reminds writers that we write, not because it is fun and easy and lucrative, but because we must. Like King, she draws deeply from her personal experiences in writing, editing, teaching, and living. She shares an important lesson: “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” And what a relief it is, to learn that all writers also happen to be human.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

on writing wellAnother essential, unfiltered, honest guide to writing. While this book is primarily a guide to writing nonfiction, I find that it is good to know the rules in order to break them for fiction. Zinsser guilts you into becoming a good writer. He helps you become your own worst critic.


Of course there are many other books equally worthy of aiding you in your journey to being the best writer you can be, but this sample platter will get you started. Congratulations, you are on your way!

Today is the day!

Poison, by Neal Starkman is out today!

NEW 8.29.13 POISON cover AShannon & Elm is thrilled to share with you the wonderful novel we have been anticipating for many months. Because Poison is our imprint’s first official publication, we are glad to say that Neal’s novel is of the quality we strive for in all of our works. Unique wit and underlying social tensions abound. Have a peek at the first page … and then go buy it!

Poison  is available for purchase here. You can also find Poison on Goodreads and check out Neal’s website.