Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Don't Reinvent the Hovercraft

Too often, aspiring writers try to reinvent the hovercraft when it comes to crafting totally unique phrases, and the writing doesn't come across as effortlessly as it needs to in order to keep the reader engaged with the story. – Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent

Are you one of those people who try to “reinvent the hovercraft?” One of the things that really irritates me about some writers is their tenacity to come up with new phrases. It isn’t just aspiring writers, I’ve seen published books with some of these phrases as well. Though this doesn’t come from writing, a prime example is the phrase “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt.” Now the phrase “been there, done that” is a perfectly good phrase, but someone decided to emphasize that by adding the part about the T-shirt. I’m sure it was funny the first time, but anymore it’s like an old joke. Well, for some people, that isn’t enough. So now you might hear people say something along the lines of “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and the coffee mug too.” They think it’s funny; the rest of us are thinking, “What an idiot!”

In writing, we might see Bransford’s example of “reinvent the hovercraft” instead of “reinvent the wheel” or “the greatest thing since the milk shake” instead of “the greatest thing since sliced bread.” I don’t know if authors are trying to be cute or if they are so afraid of clichés that they try to recreate it, but its very irritating and show no respect for the intelligence of the reader.

If you’re guilty of this and are trying to be cute, there’s not much more I can say than, “Stop it!” But if you’re trying to avoid clichés, consider what a cliché is. A cliché is a word or phrase that has lost its original effectiveness because of overuse. The aforementioned phrase “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt” is an example of a cliché. When it was first used it was intended to be funny, but it isn’t funny anymore. On the otherhand, “been there, done that” is not a cliché. Even though it has been used many times, people understand its meaning and that meaning has not changed or weakened. But at the same time, we must be careful in how we use it. It is quite informal language, so it might fit in dialog but not in the narrative. A better example of clichés are things like “free as a bird” or “cool as a cucumber.” When we see these phrases, they still have meaning, but we don’t stop to think about how free a bird is or how cool a cucumber is.

Changing the word in a cliché is not the best way to write. Changing “free as a bird” to “free as air” doesn’t really help. Effectively, what you are doing when you do that is coining a cliché. Instead of freshening the phrase to its original meaning, you’re creating a phrase that has the same meaning as the cliché. That defeats the purpose because the reason we want to avoid clichés is because their current meaning is too weak.

I think that one of the best ways to avoid these problems is to write as if we were writing to a friend. Suppose you were composing an e-mail to a friend with no intention that anyone else would see it. Let’s say you left off things like “lol” which is a huge cliché these days. Most of the clichés would disappear. You might have a few, but you would be much more concerned with communicating with your friend. You have a story to tell. If a cliché helps to tell the story you’ll use it, but you won’t be “reinventing the hovercraft” to make your writing unique. What do you care if your writing happens to sound like someone else, since only your friend will read it? You’ll avoid the old jokes because you know your friend has already heard them.

The job of the writer is to communicate the story, not to produce writing that seems particularly artistic. Write from the heart and the artistic stuff will come. The main thing we should give thought to is what we need to say.