First drafts are good for clichés

25 March 2023

A yellow tiled wall, with a yellow warning sign peeling off it. The sign says: Caution - very hot water

A writer shared a bad first draft with me recently, and asked me for the usual early feedback.

“Apologies for all the clichés,” he said. “I hate using them, but I couldn’t think of another way of saying what I wanted to say.”

Most people use clichés without even noticing, so this writer was already doing better than most. Clichés are hard to spot, and have fuzzy edges - who’s to say what’s a cliché and what’s just a snappy turn of phrase? Is “snappy turn of phrase” a cliché? See what I mean? Clichés are slippery buggers.

But, I think they’re actually quite useful, particularly in early drafts. I often encourage writers, particularly writers who are trying to think things through using words, to make use of clichés if it helps.

That’s because clichés are clear: everyone knows what they mean, despite them being over-used. Because they’re over-used.

If you’re in that position, and using a cliché or two helps you get meaning out of your head and on the page, then fine. Use clichés to start with, and don’t worry about them. We’ll both know what you’re getting at early on in the process.

And remember, there’s always a process. There’s always time for us to do some back-and-forth re-writing between writer and editor. That’s when we pay more attention to those clichés, and see if we can find better, non-clichéd ways of expressing the same sentiments.