Can clichés ever mean something?

Whenever I’m reading a book or magazine and I see a cliché, I sigh a little. As a writer, I’m supposed to. Right?

How people talk

I’ve been told I should never ever use clichés. They’ve been used so much they no longer mean anything. When I see one, I’m supposed to think the author should have known better. Or they’re terrible.

When I worked for a copywriting agency, I got told to ‘write like you talk’ because writing in plain English makes the most complicated sentences more readable and understandable.

Whilst I agree with this, there’s something I’ve noticed about the way people talk: they use clichés. I can think of many conversations I’ve been in or overheard where someone says ‘My life is a mess,’ or ‘You’re better off without them’.

Why it sucks

Despite clichés being shunned in literature, there’s a chance I would understand what someone meant if they used one in a conversation. The reason for this is context.

Someone’s life could be ‘a mess’ because they’ve lost their job and can’t afford to pay their rent, and the reason they’re ‘better off without them’ is because they were miserable when they were with ‘them’.

In these situations, clichés are a way of simplifying information and this proves they can have meaning.

Does this make it oaky for writers to use them? Mostly not. Without context, if someone says their ‘life is a mess’ it still doesn’t mean anything because I wouldn’t know know why it’s a mess.

In literature, I should be seeing why this person’s life is a mess and not just be told this. If they’ve missed a bus and this makes them late to an important meeting, I should see them being scorned by their employers. If their loved ones are dead, I should them mourning. Then the ‘life is a mess’ tag can used as a summary.

It’s about context

With enough context, clichés can mean something. But writers should use them carefully. While they’re a quick way of simplifying established information, they can make writing look lazy. At first, I shouldn’t be told that someone’s life is ‘a mess’. I should see why.


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