Once upon a yesteryear, I handed a copy of my manuscript over to an editor. A delightfully surly gentleman who attacked my prose (and my pride) with the same gusto of a panicked arachnophobe stomping on a nest of baby spiders. He was very succinct with his criticism. Quite direct. The one critique that stuck out to me was ‘personal cliché’.
I remember my cheeks burning as I typed up an e-mail. Deleted it. And typed up another. “What on earth is a personal cliché?” Eventually, I resigned to pretending to be a know-it-all and used the good ol’ Google Machine. It didn’t yield much in regards to this particular phrase, but I, using my writerly brain, broke down the etymology.
1. a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.
I went to my best friend who had also soldiered through my first manuscript. At this point, I was having a complete apocalyptic meltdown. “I don’t really use clichés that often, do I?”
She made a face like a baby about to make a mess in their diaper and I knew what I was in for. More ouch.
“Well, you did say ‘heart of hearts’. Like, a lot. And I mean, it’s nothing personal I just… I hate that cliché.”
“I didn’t say it that much.”
“It was in almost every chapter.”
I went back and looked over my manuscript with a fresh embarrassed set of eyes. Sure enough, there it was. In black and white. And it was too late to retcon my folly. The world (my editor, my best friend and her mother) had seen it.
“I’m unoriginal,” I thought. “I am so uncreative I can’t even come up with a unique way of saying things!”
Fortunately my editor speaks ‘self-flagellating writer who has a penchant for catastrophizing everything.’ “Personal clichés aren’t bad,” he explained. “You just have to be careful with how much you use them. Otherwise they become intrusive.”
So, let me explain this a little better.
What Is A Personal Cliché?
A personal cliché is your unintentional calling card. Your favorite phrase. A few words you stitched together that made you feel like you put your writer pants on that day. It’s so pretty and so you that you want to use it all the time. Or maybe it’s a common cliché that you’ve learned to use as a writing crutch. Like my ‘heart of hearts’. Basically, it’s your literary fatal flaw. If you were a serial killer, this is the shred of DNA evidence that would land your backside in the slammer.
When Is a Personal Cliché Bad?
Remember when I told you about my best friend reading me to filth about ‘heart of hearts’? That is a prime example of when it’s a bad technique to employ.
If you’re relying so heavily on a particular phrase or word that your reader is picking up on it — well, that’s not a good thing. As my editor explained to me, it intrudes on the narrative. It breaks up the flow of what you’re writing and your reader will enjoy their experience less than they were before. We’ve all had those moments in books that made us pull it away from our chest and go, “what in the good f#?! did I just read?”
We don’t want to do that. At least, not if we can help it.
While you’re going through your editing, read it like you have never seen it before. Sometimes, this means stepping away from your text for a while (it’s okay, it’ll be there when you get back, I promise). Coming back to your project with a fresh set of eyes will do both you and your manuscript a world of good. It’ll allow you to be objective – and it’ll stop you from going cross eyed.
If you notice a particular phrase (let’s say, for the sake of this example, ‘heart of hearts’), do yourself a solid and CTRL+F. See how many times it pops up. I can’t give you a formula of how many times you should see it, but if your immediate response to feel your breath hitch and your rear-end pucker… Well, friend, it’s time to go through your manuscript with a fine-tooth comb and revisit those sections.
Keep some – it is your unique flavor after all – just make sure that it’s spaced out enough your reader can be awed by your writing prowess all over again when they read it the third or fourth time.
When Can It Be A Good Thing?
Plain and simple? When used sparingly. Maybe not heart-of-hearts (as I’m sure you’re sick of reading it already — I’m sick of writing it, but I’m making a point).
It’s important to establish a voice. A unique cadence that is easily identifiable with your writing. There are a few phrases I can think of off the top of my head that remind of some of my favorite authors. I read something about eyebrows nearly disappearing behind their hairline from J.K. Rowling and it lives in my brain rent free to this day.
I read it when I was thirteen. I am now an elder millennial.
You want that phrase to be a returning guest star in the show. You do not want it to show up and suddenly take over the whole production.
The point that I’m trying to make is that those little gems – those beautifully written, witty, succinct little morsels of literary goodness – are impactful. They are your calling card. The tattoo you put on someone else’s brain. Don’t go overboard and obliterate every example of your personal cliché in your text. Keep a few. You wrote it that way for a reason. Trust yourself, trust your voice and trust your process. Allow it to flow.
You’ll know if it’s too much.
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