The best piece of writing advice I received was in a rejection letter from a publisher seven years ago. The unnamed reader said: ‘There seems to be an over reliance on repetition of words and phrases. Examine these words and dig deep to explore how you could use another word to say it better, differently, and inventively … when you rely on cliché you miss an opportunity to craft a sentence that develops a style and voice that no other author has.’ After I picked my self-confidence up off the floor and swept away my ego I realised it was true. My writing was commonplace, ordinary, boring and full of needless repetition. It was a harsh piece of criticism, but I’ve been grateful for it ever since.
We don’t want to listen to the same notes played the same way by musicians, or look at a landscape painted the exact same way by different artists, so why would we want to hear the same phrases used over and over again by writers? That one piece of feedback led me to the realisation that if something has been said a billion times before, find a different way to say it.
It’s hard to come up with an alternative to a cliché. You have to give your imagination wings, let go of realism and invite surrealism into your writing brain. Avoid those boring phrases you’ve heard so many times: my heart fluttered, a cold shiver ran up my spine, he took my breath away.
Here’s a few ways I’ve tried to say things differently in my YA novel Silver:
The days fold into each other, like origami, biting at me, holding me hostage … Drops of black ink bleed into my world, changing the colour of everything to monotone.
= I’m sad, depressed, miserable
His words are like roadkill, flat and bloody, I can almost smell the stench of them. He’s still talking, but all I can visualise is an effigy of my heart, burning on a stake, turning to charcoal, ash discolouring the air around me.
= I’m heartbroken
Hours melt through our hands and dissolve like sugar with every touch and kiss.
= we’re getting it on!
Have the confidence to be abstract with your use of language. Evoke a feeling without being explicit. Tickle a heart with a peacock feather, sprinkle golden dust on some lovers, lay an egg of anxiety in someone’s soul. Read poetry to see how poets experiment with words. Think a Picasso portrait as opposed to a Renaissance portrait.
Boring writing tells us about something the way it is. Good writing moves people and leaves an impression. We read to escape reality, so just as we want our characters to do unusual and exciting things, so too should our choice of words be interesting and unusual.
Use your intuition about when to be more creative with your writing. You don’t have to write your whole book in the same style, but little moments of escape in the text are welcome. Also, try to be self-aware when a passage of experimental writing isn’t working. You need to know when you’ve overdone something and it’s not making sense. Be abstract without being confusing. Readers don’t want to feel as though they’re trying to solve a puzzle.
I’ll leave you with this passage by Tatyana Tolstaya in one of her short stories. An ordinary writer would have said the sun set and the moon rose or day turned into night, but she says it like this …
Under the horizon, under the bowl of the earth, giant wheels have started turning, monstrous conveyer belts are winding, toothed gears are pulling the sun down and the moon up. The day is tired, it has folded its white wings, flies west-ward, big, in loose clothes, it waves a sleeve, releases stars, blesses the people walking on the chilling earth: good-bye, good-bye, I'll come again tomorrow.
Originally published in Wattpad's 2014 Just Write It: Guide
Rowena Wiseman is the author of The Replacement Wife.
Luisa is suffering in a half-dead marriage and tries to find a wife for her husband.
HarperCollins, ebook from $2.99.