12 Cliches All Writers Should Avoid

Cliches drive me bonkers, especially when it comes to writing. They are boring and abused and about as fun to read as the instruction manual of a Dustbuster. Writing is supposed to be a creative process, and there’s nothing creative in rehashing some trite phrase that is so old it was probably used by Moses as he parted the Red Sea.

So I asked the Writer’s Digest team of editors to help me compile a list of the 12 cliches in writing that need to be permanently retired. Here they are (in no particular order):

1. Avoid it like the plague
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Take the tiger by the tail
4. Low hanging fruit
5. If only walls could talk
6. The pot calling the kettle black
7. Think outside the box
8. Thick as thieves
9. But at the end of the day
10. Plenty of fish in the sea
11. Every dog has its day
12. Like a kid in a candy store

And those are just the tip of the iceberg (oh wait, there’s bonus cliche #13!).

Now that you’ve seen ours, what I want to know is: What cliches annoy you the most? Post it below in the comments section. Also, feel free to share this on Twitter to help us build the ultimate list of cliches that need to be retired:

12 Cliches All Writers Should Avoid – http://bit.ly/QBBT2o (via @BrianKlems) #wdCliches

[Editor’s Note: Winners of the Cliches Contest are listed here.]

Another article you may also enjoy on the topic is:
10 Tips to Avoid Clichés in Writing


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378 thoughts on “12 Cliches All Writers Should Avoid

  1. Jimmy_James

    I don’t care for the list to avoid. While good clichés are often trite, their wisdom transcends situations and time. I don’t like the abuse of them, but

    He who knows he knows, knows not.

  2. DadWithAPen

    Two of my pet peeves…

    “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?”

    Exactly. Why should you? It shouldn’t be a slant on anyone – yet it’s used to describe, usually, someone in a relationship where they aren’t married – but people think they should be.

    “Having their cake and eating it too.”

    First, it should be, “Eating their cake and having it too.” That makes more sense.

    But yes – why not? Why not have your cake and eat it too? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?

  3. Jedd

    This may have been said already but…


    “Reach Out”

    “We’re like a family” (to describe a workplace)

    And any semi-wannabe corporate douche that loves to STILL use Power Point!

  4. dawnie75

    A little late in the game
    If you believe that I got a bridge to sell you
    did you get your license from a cracker jack box
    roller coaster of emotions
    mad as a hornet
    busy as a bee
    I had this thought rattling around in my head
    count your chickens before they hatch
    Kennywoods open ( from Pittsburgh, meaning your pants are unzipped. )
    Cute as a Fox ( they use this in Ireland to say someone is very clever)

    – Not sure if all of these would be considered cliches but they are a bit overused.-

  5. artfulmee

    “Haters gonna hate.” It’s relatively new, and probably the most disrespectful and dismissive response to valid criticism I’ve ever heard. And to not-so-valid criticism as well.

    I am a hater of that phrase, and proud of it, and I’m gonna keep hating it. That’s right. I’m a hater. And I’m gonna hate.

    And while I’m at it, I used to have a boss that started too many sentences with, “The point being, is…” That was always the point at which I became emotionally absent from the conversation.

  6. sedge

    I forgot to mention the cliche party I once attended. They pinned a cliche to your back and you had to guess it from their hints.
    Have a nice day, folks (but don’t tell me to do that again)!

  7. sedge

    Is no one tired of “moving forward”? How did the politicians ever manage without it?

    I have enjoyed “not anytime soon” as a local expression, but now it seems to have “gone viral” (uh oh) and “at the end of the day” (but I like that one; it’s British) will join the list of annoying cliches.

  8. 7moonlight

    Low hanging fruit
    Been there, done that.
    No pain, no gain.
    Some of these have been mentioned before.

    Blood is thicker than water.
    It is what it is.
    But at the end of the day (oh so tired of that one)
    Get hitched
    BALL AND CHAIN (hate that one)
    Between a rock and a hard place
    No such thing as bad publicity (really – tell that to Todd Akin)
    kick-ass (does every urban fantasy heroine have to be “kick ass”)

  9. flame

    More cliche’s:

    I’d like to be a fly on the wall
    Flat out like a lizard drinking
    Rare as hens teeth
    Couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag
    Red as a beetroot
    Chasing your own tail
    Dead as a door nail
    Quiet as a church mouse

  10. L-Rob

    There are so many . . . here are my additions:

    Shook her like a rag doll
    Light as a feather
    As I’m sure you know
    Mad enough to spit nails
    Soft as a baby’s bottom
    White as a ghost

  11. atwhatcost

    I admit it, I hate exercising and folks who think the world would be a better place if everyone used their spare time to exercise, so let me add my cliches:
    I admit it
    The world would be a better place if….
    spare time
    couch potato
    No pain, no gain.
    110%. (Really? How does anyone go above 100%?)
    Leave it all on the field.
    Leave it all in the gym.
    Leave it all in the locker room.
    workouts (too often they’re work ins)
    work up to your full potential
    and the infamous lie – give me 1 more. 😉

  12. cnorman18

    “Twinkle in (his, her) eye.”

    Anything “as a summer’s day.” Peaceful, pretty, whatever. Same for “winter’s day,” “spring morning,” etc.

    “Dumb as a box of rocks” or “…bag of hammers.”

    Anybody “yelling and screaming.” (I actually heard this twice in less than an hour while listening to an audiobook — of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings!)

    Incidentally, “It was a dark and stormy night” was not only the opening line for Snoopy’s erstwhile book, but for Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. Honest.

    1. sedge

      “It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents–” is the opening of the 1830 novel “Paul Clifford” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. See Wikipedia for more about this infamous “purple prose” (yes, Wikipedia uses this phrase).

  13. Laura

    Stages to clichehood:

    1. Fresh metaphor or aphorism created and published. Author lauded. Others accused of plagiarism if they use it.

    2. General public begins using the metaphor or aphorism in day to day life. Lazy writers use it in newspaper articles and business memos.

    3. Everyone tires of hearing and reading the metaphor or aphorism. CLICHEHOOD REACHED!

    Moral of the story? (another cliche?) Every cliche started out as someone’s fresh way of making a point or teaching a lesson.

  14. Writes4laffs

    “It is what it is”
    “At the end of the day”
    “In the grand scheme of things”
    “Get in on the ground floor”
    “The writing’s on the wall”

    1. kelrae416

      It is what it is! Makes no sense at all, as, generally speaking all is what it is. And since it is, why the need for anyone to point it out!

  15. KarenDoll

    * Dead tired (as if the dead could be tired)
    * Dead as a door nail ( door nails were never alive to begin with )
    * It”s not rocket science
    * Makes my skin crawl ! (this one just makes me feel like bugs are crawling all over me )
    * The well’s run dry
    * Naked as a Jay bird
    * Blood is thicker than water

  16. JordanProj

    The list could be so long! I try to avoid outdated or culturally poor cliches like these:
    Black as coal (Name me a teenager that has actually seen coal?)
    Running around like wild Indians
    Busy as a one-armed paper hanger
    Sharp as a tack (Again – who really has used tacks and why use that to describe a smart person?)
    Slower than my grandma (you never saw my grandma drive)
    Chip off the old block (what?)

  17. acarter

    The phrase I hate the MOST “I could care less” The phrase makes no sense at all. What the writer
    is trying to say she/he couldn’t care about a subject. Why doesn’t he/she just say “I couldn’t care less.”

  18. wbiro

    No one has covered the political arena, and that can be the most annoying – mainly because people “suck it up”! (which isn’t a cliché- it is an actual description).

    How about

    “We must move forward!”

    “We need change!”

    If you didn’t barf when Hillary used those, and you say you hate clichés, then you are a hypocrite…

    Any phrase with the word “gravitas” in it from the news. (I haven’t heard it recently. and I hope it is out of fashion already!)

    It’s getting to the point where people mindlessly spew out anything they hear concerning politics – not having given politics any thought – they are just going along with the crowd, things like

    “Bush ruined the economy.”

    “It’s those neocon!”

    Some I still get a kick out of:

    “Demtards.” lol

    So any phrase with a ‘tard-suffixed’ word in it will soon be overused, because right now they are so fun to create! (and here we are talking about cliché-tards!)

    (and I will forever use ‘lol’ – since I see the most trite and shallow people annoyed by it – and they are the most fun to annoy…!)

    and about cliches that originated on farms and in the country – I been wondering where they went – I haven’t heard any in so long (living in the suburbs), and yet I think they’re going to make a comeback – like a fleeting fashion trend, though by then people won’t have a clue as to what they mean, or even know what the animals look like…

    and how about that exclamation point? I wouldn’t go avoiding it unnecessarily – especially when it means either sounding dour and angry or sounding alive and upbeat.

    Like that. Upbeat with a period. dead. Might as well stop reading right there. It’s over. Unhappy ending. Sour. Like this.

    Periods are deadening. Come to think of it, I’m submitting periods as an overused cliché. If you want to be a furrow-browed old grump, go ahead. I really hate them!


    So my biggest hated cliché?


    Ech! They are pretentious!

  19. Janus

    The typical family and their 2.5 children… okaaay, because i know heaps of people who give birth to HALF A CHILD
    Actually it might be 1.5. oh well, either way…

  20. JohnA

    Didn’t realise there were that many cliches in use. I imagine many of the posters here are cringing at other posts quoting cliches THEY like, and use.

    Let’s be honest: we all use cliches – or they wouldn’t be cliches. And when writing fiction, if your characters don’t use some cliches, they are probably a little less believable than they should be.

    1. Kerr Berr

      Excellent point, John, which I wanted to share also. It’s important to remember that when avoiding cliches, do so in NARRATIVE. However, as you stated, NATURAL dialogue will include some cliches, and some people (aka characters) have certain catchphrases. Using these for specific characters helps define them and make them more real, as well as more identifiable by their speech patterns.

      Manners of speaking (in dialogue) should be carefully revised so that the reader knows who is speaking (most of the time) before the speaker attribute is even given.

      That being said (ack, there’s another one), I cringe when someone says “Well, to be honest…”

      Oh shootfire, you mean you’ve been lying to me up until now?!?! :)

      However, make your characters repeat certain phrases like this that people use, just be careful that other characters don’t use these same personal catchphrases. My buck-three-fifty, lol. (I refrained from saying my two cents worth)

  21. Bounce10

    Stick the landing – folks on TV can’t seem to get away from it since the 2012 Olympics – enough already!

    And an old but still bothersome one is when someone says “impacted” instead of affected.

    Love the list – this has been an enjoyable read.

  22. RedHeadedViking

    “It is what it is” makes me want to “go postal”. I also intensely dislike the phrase “shot dead”. Really? When is the last time someone was “shot alive”? Whatever happened to just saying “killed”?

  23. mikesensei

    Anything involving the word “amazing.” (Especially when celebrities use it at funerals: “She was such an amazing individual.” /sniff/ )


  24. patu

    1. “when vultures are circling”
    2. “When sharks are circling”
    3. “Honest as the day is long”
    4. “Till the cows come home”
    6. “Cats and dogs”
    7. “An iron hand in the velvet glove”
    8. “Beat them at their own game”
    9. “Throw the gauntlet”
    10. “Swallow the bitter pills”
    11. “As cool as the cucumber”
    12. “Wheels within wheels”
    13. “Throw spanner into the wheel”

  25. Catfish 9

    It’s always funny to me when I her, “Shoot at will!” Makes me wonder how often during a movie seen that everyone turns toward the actor named Will . . .

  26. MegMac

    “When hell freezes over” (if you’ve read Dante’s Inferno, you know the bottom level of hell is already frozen)

    “When pigs fly”

    Anything “epic.” Not everything that happens is that amazing. The only things that should be referred to as epic are epic poems like that of Homer and Virgil, Paradise Lost, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Avengers.

    Misusing “That’s ironic.” Learn what irony is first, then we’ll talk.

  27. a.bennett2

    This is so not a Catch 22 situation, and can I say (?) not a sexy policy by any stretch of the imagination. Having said that, yours truly just wants to articulate that we are all singing from the same song-book to get to that level playing field. Basically, we have to join the dots to get to the coal-face of our mission statement. Essentially, this little black duck will never throw the baby out with the bath-water. Are you with me? Well, in point of fact yours truly must away now. Have a nice day!

  28. Sean O'Mordha

    While sitting in the shade of an old cottonwood trying to snag a bullhead for supper, and had to think outside the box on this one. Glad to see “A fish out of water,” finally come up. However, since people speak cliches, dialogue might lean into the stupid realm if not used. Certainly they can be exorcised from . . . whatchimacallit? . . . oh yes, narration.

  29. JettAllyson

    Take the bull by the horns
    Run away with his tail between his legs
    His/her blood ran cold
    His heart was in his throat
    She broke into a cold sweat
    It took her by surprise
    If you ask me…
    Get off your high horse
    He’s just sewing his wild oats
    Scared the hell out of me
    Scared me to death (which isn’t even accurate for a still-living person to say)

    I know it’s not a cliche, but I hate the words “suddenly” when used more than once in one story. How often can a sudden thing really happen?

  30. Stacey Goitia

    I think there are still some that haven’t been touched on (oldies but moldies, which is another one):
    Flat as a pancake
    Stiff as a board
    Dark as night
    Dark as dago
    Too dumb to be funny
    Blow the stink off you
    Quiet as a mouse
    Skinny as a mealy cow
    White as a sheet
    Stronger than a bull
    Soft as a butterfly
    Creamy as churned butter
    Milky-white skin
    Like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs
    Like a bull in a china shop

    And cheesy, over-used phrases like:
    Midnight hair
    Chestnut eyes
    Languid form (don’t use ‘form’ in general when describing a person’s body – ugh!!!)
    Subtle moves
    Thick mane (this is used all too often to describe a woman, not a horse, sheeze)
    Her eyes flew to him (Really? Eyes can fly?)

  31. shanster303

    I can’t stand “like taking candy from a baby”.

    And I don’t know if it’s a cliche or not, but I hate when I see in novels “more than one/a little”. Why not just say “a lot” or “many” so it won’t be so wordy?

  32. Mrs. Tracy

    I agree…a very common cliché would be one of the many versions of “The grass is greener…”

    I heard a song the other day on the radio and the male rapper said, “The grass is greener where you water it.” I found that to be great way to make new use of an old cliché.

    My grandmother had a couple I loved. If I wore tight pants she would say, “Lord! You look like you were melted and poured back into those pants!” Back in my youth I heard that often.

  33. sallie

    Go figure: He thought she was hot to trot, but now he’s knee deep in trouble. And I warned him that she can’t hold a candle to what was…I mean, she eats like a horse, and never lifted a finger to boot. C’mon, it was clear as mud that she was too hot to handle. But ol’ eagle eye, just like clock work, said “Piece of cake.” Yep, he takes the prize, because now he’s boxed in a corner, tied up in knots and swimming against the tide. And now his life is up for grabs. Well, no use crying over spilled milk, I told him, I mean, you can’t eat your heart out over someone who’s not pencil perfect. You gotta turn another page, or you’ll be dead meat. After all, she’s not the only chicken in the pot. Well, I could go on and on…but I think I’ll just sleep on it—wait! I just decided he’s not my cup of tea, either, so why bother with such nonesense. He’s a real fruitcake!

    1. Kerr Berr

      Sally, hilarious. Ya beat me to the punch, lol.

      Not to beat a dead horse (ack, who would DO that?!?!), but writers should get their ducks in a row when revising and mind the store like dogs in heat or else the readers will eat them alive like foxes in a hen house. You just have to take the bull by the horns and go for the gusto, so that when the chickens come home to roost and the smoke has cleared, you have your writing soaring with eagles and singing like a choir of angels.

      There. I feel better now. Cheers! :)