Secrets of micro-revision: #1 Crushing your cliches

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Nitty-gritty revision tips

There are several different stages of revision, from big structural down to micro copyediting. Each comes with its own challenges, but sometimes when you get to copyediting and final polishing, it can be hard to step back and give each and every word a fresh “going over”.

One strategy is to scan the manuscript, looking for certain elements and marking each time you come to one that jars. We all have “things” we do in our writing, like tics. We are so used to them that we just can’t see them – but other readers do, and will often remark on how they stick out.

One of these is cliches. They creep in easily to our first drafts because we’re in the throes of inspiration (or slogging through the saggy middle) and any words on the page seem like great words! But ultimately that’s where cliches and ordinariness sneak in because they are “first thoughts”. If I said to you, “Quick, give me a simile for green”, you’d probably say “green as grass”. In writing, you might not reach for that cliche so easily, but you may well use one that’s almost as familiar.

Anything familiar or well-used needs to be weeded out.

Here are some examples of well-used or over-familiar phrases you can look for: at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, ticks all the boxes, think outside the square, 24/7, tried and true, that takes me back, stay-at-home mum/mom, ordinary working family, lady of the night, streets ahead… I’m sure you could come up with dozens more. We use them in everyday conversation all the time, but they don’t belong in our fiction (unless you have a character who deliberately speaks in cliches).

So when you’re ready to do a cliche run through your manuscript, get out a colored pen or marker, and consciously think – I am looking for familiar phrases and cliches. Then read quickly and mark every one you find, even ones you’re not sure about. Don’t stop to think, keep going to the end. Later you can come back and examine each one, and then replace them with something fresh and better.

What are your favorite over-used phrases that you’ve caught in your drafts?

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