Cliches In Writing (Orwell saved us all)
Politics and the English Language written in 1946 was one of the many books penned by George Orwell. In Politics he wrote the six elementary rules of writing, there is however only one (at least for the purpose of this essay) that has taken my interest. It is as follows;
“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Since I read this, I’ve worked tirelessly at developing manuscripts that avoid doing exactly that. As someone that is relatively well-read, this has proven to be far more difficult than I had anticipated. In some stories, I have succeeded, in most I have failed (and thankfully some have been relegated to the depths of locked drawers while others buried beneath cyber-dust and coated rather majestically in cyber-spider-webs).
The suggestion and application of the rule have led me to consider cliches as a whole in the world of writing. To write a short story without a single cliche (and to extend the rule) without over using your invented equivalent, is certainly an understated feat. Suddenly usage of all cliches is impossible. At first thought, this wasn’t as daunting as I was led to expect, but when it’s considered there are cliches for everything and here lies the challenge.
To write about love and money and luck and beauty and freedom is to speak the language of cliche. My examples (which I poached from here) are; ‘You only hurt the one you love,’ ‘Love is blind,’ Time is money,’ ‘Money makes the world go round,’ Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ ‘Beauty is only skin deep.’ The gut wrenching all time favourites of anybody who has ever spoken or written of love, money, and beauty. And perhaps most writers wouldn’t use such obvious ones, but there certainly is a degree of security in clinging to what we know – as there is in life and in writing.
They have become integrated into our speech patterns and detecting them is becoming difficult, considering the level to which we have all been desensitized. It sounds doomsday-ish and perhaps to the zealots, it maybe. But spoken language has lost a sense of originality as using a cliche term is perhaps the simplest way to illustrate how you feel about a subject. Ambiguity noted in ‘subject’ and it’s more or less the point, because cliches literally cover every aspect of frustration, sadness and happiness. I’m surprised there aren’t more about self publishing, it covers all of those, all the time.
Aside from the requirement of a lot of extra brain work in establishing a substitute for a well known cliche, we run the risk of using a language feature in too much of an obscure way, which, while it may add flair to a piece, can confuse a reader. Or, to move outside the bounds of the craft of writing, there is certainly the risk of confusing somebody you’re having a conversation with. While this could encourage intellectual elitism (which may or may not be a bad thing), the risk is run of the user having to explain what is meant by the revamped language feature. And as I’m sure has been said to most ‘why don’t you just speak ‘English’.’ The brilliant response of the ignorant and under-thought.
And yes there are risks but (to steal a cliche) there is no risk without reward. The use of a language feature in an unexpected style has the ability to lift one’s writing or speech into another level and (for the sake of vanity) allows a certain amount of intellectual flaunting. That said, I am not entirely sure where the trick of enhancing a language feature begins and ends. As I’ve said, I don’t consider myself a particular success at it.
There are also different things that need to be taken into account. The theory that writers only work on the basis of the human condition (sadness, happiness, fear) which has been written about extensively, would mean that each time a story of the human condition is written. The writer is simply rehashing one of the three basic emotions and every other emotion extends from this core.
With that in mind, it is arguable that the essence of creative writing is in the writing itself and not in the authors imagination (world construction and characters). The use of language features, the ability to reconstruct an over used cliche into something that fits the tone and style of the piece as well as making near logical sense to the reader. I am going to avoid the conclusive statement and say that this is all the creative process is, simply because I don’t believe it myself. Though it is easy to see where the thought comes from, Harry Potter & Twilight are simply updated, if you will, versions of wizard & vampire stories (to be blasphemous a modern day Lord of The Rings or Dracula), this is their essence, their beginning. They stand apart from the pack by the way the writer handles the language, the emotion and constructs the story.
Using that logic, there is nearly no way to escape the theory and therefore, Orwell (as to be expected) was right. He was right to come up with the rule and even more so to publish it. In order to separate themselves, based on their creative flair and thought process. Writers need to consider all of Orwell’s rules, but perhaps this one above all else as it adds to one of the most important parts about writing, not being wooden and not being boring. No one likes a bore and of course there (thankfully) will most likely be room for only one tragically horrendous bestseller this year in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey. Orwell also said however, in regards to all six of his rules; “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”