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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383 thoughts on “12 Cliches All Writers Should Avoid

  1. hopeh1122

    Cliches are a dime a dozen, so I will be hard-pressed to come with a few that are as good as gold. Needless to say, even though most are old hat, there are a few that really rock my world. I am absolutely head over heels for the southern fried cliches like “mad as a wet hen” and “fits him like a bad suit” but then there are some like “caught like a deer in the headlights”, and “too big for his britches” that really don’t float my boat.
    I think writers should start from scratch and come up with their own unique cliches, go out on a limb a little bit, but then again, why reinvent the wheel if there are all ready so many good ones out there ripe for the picking? Just pick one that fits like a hand in a glove with what you are trying to convey. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, the show must go on, so just be clear about your meaning (the creme de la creme of good writing) and let the cliches flow like water downhill.

    1. mundenj1

      I may be overly sensitve, but the phrase “to no avail” causes me to chuck whatever it is I happen to be reading. I close the book, put down the paper, turn off the computer, and never read another word written by that writer. Please stop using it.

  2. Pepper.Pilgrim

    I’ve been working my butt off trying to think of annoying clichés, but I can’t get down to the brass tacks of just doing it. All you other people offer them up easily, as though you were shooting fish in a barrel. I feel like I’m behind the 8 ball or worse, up a tree, or simply a small fish in a big pond and sinking like a stone. I know, that seems like an open and shut case of bad omens. I wish I had more imagination, but I’m just lost when it comes to the nitty gritty of using the right side of my brain. It feels like I’m running against the wind or spitting into it. I’m off to a bad start. I know it’s late, and my back’s against the wall. I just can’t think, my mind is running amok. Holy cow! That’s sick. It would be really righteous if I could put two and two together here, hopefully crank it up a notch.

    Maybe we could circle the wagons and start afresh. But we might get off on the wrong foot. That would be one giant step for mankind, but one foot in the grave for me. I need to sharpen my wits, perhaps get in the zone, instead of looking at life through the bottom of a bottle. Maybe I could somehow get on the same page as you all, perhaps pull the plug on ennui. I feel like I’m living off the grid but writing from the heart. I feel like I need to buy a vowel. I’m not at the top of my game by any stretch of the imagination. It feels like someone else’s tail is waggin’ the dog here, while I’m chillin’ in my crib. Please, beam me up, Scotty.

    Not that that would help because, again, my head is stuck so far up my butt, I can only see where the sun don’t shine. And my imagination is so weak, it won’t let me walk down any yellow-brick road toward that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Maybe I’ll google it. I’m no quitter, but it feels like I’m fighting for my life. I’m just some Plain Jane or John Doe trying to make it through another day of writing what you know. No rest for the weary.

    You think you could help a brother out?? No…got enough troubles of your own, got your own damn bucket list? Then fine, why don’t you just go, leave on the horse you rode in on. Catch my drift, dude?

    1. Kerr Berr

      That’s what I’m trying to say, lol. I read you like a book. Don’t beat around the bush about it, or get your britches in a twist, or your panties in a wad, just go out there and take the world by storm, and keep your reading audience in stitches. Make them laugh like there’s no tomorrow, cry a river of tears, scare the life out of them, keep them on the edge of their seat, and you’ll keep them coming back for more like beggars at a banquet. I hope that was crystal clear, smart as a whip, sharp as a tack, cute as a button, sweet as honey, and cool as a cucumber. Somebody shoot me, I’m going off the rails like a speeding freight train without brakes. Or a kid in a candy store. Or a bull in a China shop. Yeah, you’re preaching to the choir.

  3. TimLorge

    Anything that appears on a bumper sticker, hat or T-shirt. Also, that which could be considered “hip” such as starting a sentence with “Oh, FYI …”. Unless, of course, you are writing for a YA TV show when at least one of the aforementioned should appear in every scene.

  4. debcar

    Dancing on my grave
    Greener on the other side (of what?)
    In the business world … when a program (or something else) is referred to as “sexy”
    One horse town (I’ve seen towns with all the resources you need, except for a horse)
    Out to lunch (crazy?)
    I’ve lost my mojo (what is that?)
    Sad, but true

    Can’t think of anymore, but I’m sure they’re out there, being spoken to death … hehehe

  5. CJKEats

    Much of what has been dissed here already is actually slang terms, not really cliches, but some of both that bug me are:
    “we’re on the same page” and its follow-thru “Going forward”
    “Cute as a button” (Never liked buttons- maybe cute as a zipper or velcro would be more current)
    “Silent as the grave”
    “Black as night”
    “On the down-low”
    “the minute seemed to last an hour” (Or variations- the hour semed to last a day etc)
    “don’t kid a kidder”
    “You’re gonna want to see this!” the chosen method of evidence reveal in most police dramas.
    SO many cliuches, so little time – woops there’s another one…..

  6. chas2788

    I have to take issue with the 2nd cliche on your list. Charles Dickens proved that you can use “dead as a doornail” and be quite entertaining. The cliche on my list is “fly on a wall.” Miley Cyrus proved you can’t make that one entertaining.

  7. mdallison

    1) Its time.
    2) Avoid using cliches.
    3) Words cannot express.
    4) So just dive in!
    5) We’re taking the next step.
    6) Onto another level.
    7) To go the extra mile.
    8) Strictly speaking.
    9) Live a little.
    10) On the wild side.
    11) “Raising” or “lowering” everyone’s expectations.
    12) You never know.

  8. bjroe

    I especially hate

    Totally awesome!
    It is what it is.
    Think outside the box.
    Get with the program!
    Man up!
    Suck it up!
    Team player
    Don’t get your knickers in a twist.
    Going off half-cocked.
    On the same page
    110% effort
    Old-timers disease
    Crazy as a fox
    Hot as a fox
    Silly as a goose
    Fat as a pig
    Ugly as a mud fence
    Plain as an old shoe
    Ugly as homemade sin
    work like a horse
    fly off the handle
    hell-bent for . . .
    Literally (for something that is anything but literal)
    You know, like
    Fly in the ointment
    Mad as a wet hen
    It goes without saying . . .
    To make a long story short
    put in my 2 cents worth
    booty call
    omg (or any of its variants with actual words)

    Some of these would fit some fictional characters for dialogue. Too much of any one of them could “send me off the deep end.”

  9. chipper

    Cliches are a unique language that identify like minded people; discriminately selected cliches do not bother me as much as fashion phrases that seem to come and go without warning; “it was surreal” for example or “it was the perfect storm” and more recently, “uber…”. ugh!

  10. megan2012

    I actually like ‘glass half full’ – I just wish it wasn’t so overused.

    For an international perspective:
    ‘spat the dummy’
    ‘ran around like a blue-arse fly’

  11. KeeleeHamomin

    I absolutely cannot stand;
    “By the skin of your teeth.” Ugh!! I HATE it. Makes my skin crawl, and no, not the skin on my teeth (whatever that is supposed to mean anyway.)

    I also hate the “think outside the box” and “practice makes perfect.” Every time I read those, I imagine a nasally, high pitched voice saying it, because usually that is the type of person I hear it from. If you can’t think of half the things I did that morning, you have no right to tell me to think outside of anything, much less your box.

  12. vinnie

    Come on folks, not all things considered cliché deserve debasement. Try thinking of some of these well used phrases as a way of compressing a lot of culture and feeling into just a few words.
    “Between a rock and a hard pace, “is one of my favorites. I use it often, and intend to use it thousands more.
    Imagine a miner trapped on the 4800 foot level. The substation is blown to shards, the face pumps are down, and the water is already to his waist. He feels the need to state the perfectly obvious to his fellow workers. “Boys, we’re between a rock and a hard place. “ It covers the place and the situation, and all the little nuance in between, rather nicely. It’s hard for me to imagine this individual, considering where he came from, what he does, who he associates with, his station in life, and his situation, saying anything else.
    If “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” were done up in Latin it would end up somewhere around “que roche roche alum”, would be contributed to a great scholar, and considered a motto. It would sprout wings and fly in the worlds most prestigious universities.
    Not all cliché are cliché.
    But as we go forward, we will endeavor to persevere, in the face of pervasive intellectual snobbery.

  13. catbr

    Yeah some of those listed cliches are really annoying but I have to admit I still use a couple of them from time to time when talking. Not so in writing. One cliche that bothers me is: It was a lightbulb moment. On the other hand a couple that I like are: Don’t judge a person until you have walked around a few miles in their shoes; The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. ( Not really sure if these two are cliches or if they fall under some other category.)

  14. vickielb

    Been there, done that. Got the teeshirt.
    So thick you could cut the stress, fog, tension with a knife.
    No problem.
    My bad.
    Smart as a tack.
    Dumb like a fox.
    … (Comes from, lived on, Born on) The other side of the tracks.

  15. brenj62

    My son says until I am nauseous: Oh chill-ax (chill and relax)

    Smoking hot! Okay, someone get the fire extinguisher!

    Drop, dead gorgeous. Well, if she drops dead, the gorgeous will end rather suddenly…once decay sets in!

    One tall drink of water. Well, if he is a human, he is mostly water anyway. So, really we are all tall drinks of water!

    Step up to the plate. If we are not playing baseball, why should we?

    Cute as a bug in a rug. Am I the only one that does not find a bug in the rug cute?!!

    It was a dark and stormy night. Yes, people still use it. No, it isn’t published, though…lol!

    I am loving this!

  16. KelleySheppard

    The grass is greener on the other side.
    Shut the Front Door is much nicer than Shut the F*$k Up, but I don’t like either one.
    See a man about a horse.
    Birds of a feather flock together.
    Your ass is grass and I’m the lawn mower. I rarely hear this one now.
    Who spit in your cheerios? I think I am having early 90’s flashbacks. I’m going to stop now and get back to writing 🙂 This has been fun!

    1. Kerr Berr

      Well, Kelley, at least you didn’t say “Who peed in your Wheaties?” And with that, I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone too, and give it all I’ve got and let the chips fall where they may. No sense in letting all the chickens out of the coop, ay? I mean, we have to keep from putting the horse before the carriage… although putting the horse behind it isn’t much incentive to make him push. Unless you lead him by a carrot on a stick…

  17. TX-exPat

    While I dislike low-hanging fruit, that being said, at the end of the day, long story short, and that dog won’t hunt — I really despise the constant misuse of the term “actionable” as in “We need actionable suggestions.” Uh, no you don’t, unless you enjoy being sued.

    There are some clichés that I like and use in speech only, just because they are word paintings AND ear candy: “busier than a short-tailed bull in the height of fly season” is a favorite.

  18. LittleBird87

    I’m so tired of people writing (and saying) ‘as well’ at the end of a sentence when they mean ‘too’. As in:
    “John and Mary went to the park, and we went there as well.” I think it started as a British colloquialism and migrated over to the U.S., but it doesn’t work with our speech patterns here–it just sounds stilted.

    1. G-Girl2

      I think it’s a regional thing. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and “as well” is commonly used. It’s never sounded stilted to me. But then my mom was Canadian so maybe it was that sneaky British influence after all. ;+}

  19. Tracy Davidson

    “Stop strangling the cat!”

    Which usually gets yelled at me whenever I start singing in the shower. Some people have no respect for my talent!

  20. Robert Iulo

    Here are a few “off the top of my head.”

    Been there, done that
    Don’t go there
    In terms of
    It is what it is
    It’s a beautiful thing.
    It’s a good thing
    It’s all good
    Know what I’m saying?
    I’m just saying
    Let’s do this.
    Quality of life
    That being said

  21. Kris Boss

    – Hell hath no fury…
    – The road to hell is paved in good intentions
    – Drunk as a skunk
    – Old as Methuselah
    – She’s a man eater

    Cliche concepts bother me, too:
    the hard-nosed detective chick who is never taken seriously by her male counterparts… and yet somehow she’s made detective;
    the hooker with a heart of gold;
    sex-kitten cougars who seem to have all the money in the world and are still somehow NOT involved in any kind of relationship (whether married or not);
    the psycho/sociopath who was abused as a child and now takes it out on women/men/children;
    ANY author who is too nice to their protagonist (BORING!);
    the male-bashing, hygiene-challenged, charity-wielding feminist who studies animals and is clearly more genius than anyone else ever.

    Overused words I can’t stand:
    totally, brutal, rad, nice, like, awesome, cool, bro, man.

    Words used in the wrong context… or otherwise used unnecessarily:
    plethora, advantageous, awesome, amazing, hysterical, scream(ed), whispered, smirked, grinned, the color of anyone’s eyes other than blue/brown/green/hazel (emerald, steel gray, etc). Really, any extreme words used for ordinary occurrences.

  22. Beatlefan0109

    Cliches. I Hate the following:

    It is what it is. (No kidding!)
    Looking out for number one. (The only person saying this should be a member of a sports team playing defense)
    Have a good one. (I hated this damn phrase from the first time I heard it and it hadn’t become a cliche yet!)
    It ain’t over until the fat lady sings. (Yogi Bera had a way with words. Not!)

    Cliche phrases:
    “Hooking up” – for anything from meeting a member of the opposite sex (in some cases the same sex) to having sex with that person.
    Statement. “NOT!” (See my last one on the phrase list.)

  23. annabeth

    ‘ever seen’ as in, ‘most beautiful thing he’s ever seen’, ‘the best thing she’s ever seen’ etc (ha, I think ‘etc’ at the end of that sentence is a bonus cliche!)

    That one I mentioned I’m sure I’m guilty of, but it also drives me nuts (there’s another one) because it’s used constantly. Does that make sense? (another one!)

  24. Shirley Francis-Salley

    “A word to the wise is sufficient.”

    So,as quiet as it’s kept,
    don’t go there
    for six in one hand and a half dozen in the other reasons
    because everybody who’s anybody knows
    a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
    I’m just saying.

  25. Claude Nougat

    Great post, wonderful clichés, really enjoyed it, both your post and the (numerous) comments…raining like dogs and cats!! Awsome, ha ha! I’ve been laughing so hard I’m belly up, ugh! Okay, let’s put it this way: clichés are useful in that you could write about just anything using ONLY clichés!

  26. TillieCorinne

    “That said…”
    “The lights aren’t all on upstairs” and/or “Got a screw loose”
    “Make my day”
    “Dumber’n a bag o’hammers” (my family uses this ALL THE TIME…)
    “Give them the time of day”
    “Pig in a poke” I have never, EVER seen a pig in a poke; getting poked, yes. Inside one? No.
    “I never kiss and tell.”
    “Give me a break.”

    1. Mimiweisbond

      Actually, the poke referred to is a paper bag, in the hills and hollers of the rural South.
      What the pig is doing in it, or what the expression means, is beyond my ken.

  27. a.bennett2

    “A kangaroo short of the top paddock” (my husband uses this one just for fun)

    “Having said that,”

    “level playing-field”

    “articulate” used as a verb meaning “say”


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