Ulterior motiveClichés, bromides, and other banalities happen because they are so convenient. When we need to describe something commonplace, these ready-made phrases are right there in full, waiting to be used. They're the frozen dinners of writing: yes, you'll get a complete meal (convey the idea), but don't expect it to be cuisine.
As writers and editors, we have a closer relationship with the language than average folk. We may be well-armed to obliterate the trite phrases that infest the writings of people who don't deal with words for a living, but that doesn't mean we are immune to the internal environment that breeds clichés.
We each have our own conveniences and idiosyncrasies. It could be a favorite word or phrase that we — consciously or unconsciously — try to work into our work. (Susurrous is one of mine.) It could be the ease with which our writing slips into second-person point of view without having given POV a moment's thought. Or it could be whole phrases that act as personal clichés: we reach for them like comfort food again and again, rarely noticing how many we're consuming.
Whatever it is, this exercise is designed to help you recognize and break free from it.
And this is purely an exercise. I don't expect your excerpt to be greatly improved by eliminating all the four-letter words. What I hope you'll do is get a new perspective on your own craft.
You might find yourself replacing a single word or phrase multiple times and begin to wonder if maybe you use it too often.
You might be stymied trying to rewrite a phrase because what you've already written seems like the only way to make a particular statement — and not because it really is the only way, but because it's the only way you've ever done it.
Ultimately, this exercise is supposed to help you get away from automatic writing, from lazy writing, by forcing you to look at and consider each word and how you use it.
If you try this out and discover a personal idiosyncrasy, please do share!
My exampleI started with this text, from the story "Broccoli, Caesar and Sex."
I had successfully spent two decades hating both broccoli and salad — salad in general, much less some ancient Roman version — before I made the switch, and that switch came, as monumental shifts in a man’s personality often do, because of a woman.
Let’s call her Elsa.
When I first met Elsa, I was a 20-year-old college student passing the summer before my junior year in a ramshackle house on the edge of campus. She was a 23-year-old senior who looked like a TV star — which is similar to looking like a movie star, but without all the glamour and ego. She was a friend of one of my housemates who stopped by often to go bar hopping, complain about summer classes, or smoke weed. Sometimes all three.
We fell into a romantic relationship the way a 10-year-old boy who’s afraid of the water falls into a swimming pool after being pushed by his older, meaner brother. She was smart, confident and beautiful; I was introverted, lonely, and aimless. I was smitten and enthralled, and she was gentle and understanding. It was the perfect recipe for a wonderful, if short-lived, relationship.
As new couples are wont to do, we enjoyed doing things for one another. I wrote her a poem, for example, and she bought us a bottle of cheap vodka. She stayed with me when I dropped acid, and I helped her fold her laundry.
One night, she decided she wanted to prepare us a romantic, home-cooked dinner. Something from scratch. She asked me what kind of foods I liked.
“I’m not picky,” I told her.
It was the truth, or what I thought was the truth. I wouldn’t recognize until much later, after I had eaten my way through larger regions of the world’s culinary landscape, how small my palate really was back then.
The reworked version . . .. . . which involved giving "Elsa" a new false name:
I had successfully spent two decades hating broccoli and salad - salad in general, not specifically an ancient Roman version — before I became a convert. Conversion occurred, as monumental shifts in a heterosexual male's personality often do, because of a woman.
We shall refer to her as "Melanie."
I was a two-decade-old college student wasting my summer between "sophomore" and "junior" in a ramshackle house on the periphery of campus the day I met Melanie. She was 23, a senior, and she resembled a TV starlet — which is similar to a movie starlet, but without all the glamour and ego. She was a friend of one of my housemates who stopped by often to go bar hopping, complain about summer classes, or smoke the ganja. Sometimes all three.
We stumbled quickly beyond friendship to a romantic relationship the way a pre-pubescent boy who is afraid of water stumbles and splashes off the perimeter of a swimming installation after being pushed by his older, meaner brother. She was smart, confident and beautiful; I was introverted, lonely, and aimless. I was smitten and enthralled, and she was gentle and understanding. It was the perfect recipe for a wonderful, if short-lived, romance.
As all new couples do, we enjoyed doing things for one another. I wrote her poetry, for example, and she bought us a bottle of cheap vodka. She babysat me the day I tried LSD, and I helped her do her laundry.
One night, she decided she wanted to prepare us a romantic dinner using her own skills. Nothing but fresh foods, herbs, and spices. She asked me to identify my favorite culinary treats.
“I’m not picky,” I answered.
It was the truth; I thought it was, anyway. I wouldn’t recognize until years later, after I had eaten my way through larger regions of the world’s culinary landscape, how small my palate really was at the start of my third decade.