Cleaning up Clutter and Cliches

Cleaning up Clutter and Cliches


Thanks to for the intro and outro music.

ASK THE AUTHOR: Darion Wells via Twitter: How do you remain so ridiculously awesome with a family, a full time career, and a writer’s responsibilities?

AARON: Pops, I assume this question is for you. *Pause for laughter.* I’ve actually been asked this quite a bit, though not generally in such a flattering way. Industry professionals and colleagues seem to be the ones who ask the  most often. One of the highest compliments I received was from my agent, Dave Fessenden who, when I told him when I would have a project done, informed the publisher interested in my project that it would absolutely be done by my quoted date. I believe his words were “highly reliable.” I pride myself on my productivity and work ethic. I like to think I’m able to do everything well (though I can’t be the judge of that; my readers and my boss are). I inherited this work ethic honestly. I have a parent who was an incredibly hard worker. Rarely did they take a day off, and they set goals and achieved them. Thanks, Mom. *Pause for laughter.* Actually, both my parents were very hard workers. Now, to the heart of the question. The key is dedication and self-discipline. I set realistic goals; I manage my time in such a way so as to maximize my efficiency in both my careers and my family life. And I work ahead. I’ve been lucky enough to write several novels ahead of my contracts. I’ve not reached the point in my career where I’m selling novels routinely on spec. Once I’m at that point, I imagine the level of challenge will increase from “normal” to “epic!” Pops, you’ve been at that point of your career more than I have, but you started in much the same way I did–two careers. Sometimes three. How did you do it?

POPS: Drugs. Nah, jus’ kiddin’. I’m not sure there is a simple answer to this. Much of life is about sacrifice. There are people who sacrifice their family or their health or something else important for something less important. While writing is important, it is not the center of life. It will not make you happy. Only you can make yourself happy. So, in the early days of my writing when I had family at home and business to take care of, I wrote less than I would later when I went full time. Still, to make it as a writer, you have to produce. Many writers make time to write when the family is asleep, or before going to work. It’s different for every situation. There is no golden plan. Do what you can, when you can. Most of all, be a good person.

MJ: When your last name is Realy, you can’t help but be awesome. 😉

Firsts in Fiction

Cleaning up Cliches and Clutter

Few things ruin a good book more than cluttered, cliched prose. A cliche is a description, figure of speech, or even a character archetype or story trope that has been used so often, it fails to be impactful. You’ve heard them before: her tears fell like rain, my love is like a rose, etc. But there are other unsightly prosaic faux pas that plague our writing, like tautologies and pleonasms. These are big, fancy words that mean “too many words to describe something simple.”

Here are some ways to handle these unsightly prosaic fouls.

The Cliche: First of all, understand that cliches are completely acceptable in a first draft. They are not okay in final drafts. Think of them as place holders. Mark these however you can to remind yourself that you need to come back and find a fresh, original description, instead of using a lazy cliche. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this link: (These are hilarious.)

How do you fix them?

AL: Again, remember not to worry about these things during the first draft. First draft is for story; second draft is for refining. If you’re building a house, you don’t worry about the paint color when you’re still pouring the foundation. Al’s Axiom: It’s easier to juggle one ball than six. Focus on what’s in front of you.

Al’s Helpful Hint: It is easy to set up your computer to read to you. Do that. Sometimes we catch more problems with our ears than with our eyes. Or, read your work aloud. That’s very useful.

Here’s how Aaron handles it:

  • Come up with a list of original descriptions that get to the same idea. You need to come up with at least three (Aaron’s rule). Once you get to the third or fourth or fifth way to describe the same thing, then you’re dealing with something far more original.
  • Ask yourself how your character would express the emotion or detail. Find something original to him or her. Then use that. Are they a rancher? Use farm language. Lawyer? Use legalese. Doctor? Medical terms.
  • EXAMPLE: His back was against the wall (he was between a rock and a hard place). Now I’m going to find three ways my computer programming character would say the same thing.
    • He faced an endless loop.
    • The solution was undefined.
    • He could accomplish the feat as easily as one could be divided by zero.
  • Also, you can avoid the cliche altogether and simply go for a beat of imagery to express it.
    • No way out of this one. He clenched and unclenched his fists as his brain ran through permutations to the impossible choice.
  • Avoid replacing one cliche with one particular to you.
    • Aaron is prone to characters nodding.
    • Aaron read a book where every character “firmed their jaw” or “firmed their lips.”
    • He smiled, grinned, etc. is way overused. So is, he laughed, sighed, etc.

Al: Sometimes a character might use a cliche, if it fits who he or she is, but be careful with that. Don’t do it too much or it becomes noticeable.

Aaron: I love the character in Short Circuit who mixes up his cliches. That can be fun sometimes. Same thing with Biff from Back to the Future. If they use cliches, maybe find a way to twist them a bit, or to have their cliche reveal something about their character.

There are several forms of “verbosity.” Verbosity is the use of more words than needed; wordiness.

Prolix: refers to the use of too many words. Prolix is the adjective; prolixity is the noun; prolixly (an awful word) is the adverb. It’s trying to stuff 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10 pound bag (how’s that for a cliche?).

I like what Theodore A. Rees Cheney said: “…prolixity is the mention of things not worth mentioning.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, Getting the Words Right, p. 16) Cheney gives this example:

Original: “He says the college’s dream is one day to open the colonnade with special guides dressed in clothing in the style worn about the time of the historic hall’s members.” (30 words)

Revised: “He says the college’s dream is one day to open the colonnade with special guides dressed in period clothing.” (19 words)

In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.”

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser has one of my statements about the writer and clutter (prolix):

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds–the writer is always slightly behind. New varieties sprout overnight, and by noon they are part of the American speech. (p.14)

Pleonasms: This is the use of more words than necessary.

  • Poodle dog (As opposed to a poodle cat. Just poodle).
  • Both Mike and Bill came to my house. (Just “Mike and Bill came to my house.)
  • Deep puddles of water. (As opposed to deep puddles of milk). Just “deep puddles.”
  • She blinked her eyes. (What else would she blink?) Just, “She blinked.”
  • He stood to his feet. (As opposed to standing to his elbows.) Just, “He stood.”
  • Dead corpse. No such thing as a living corpse unless you’re zombie lit.
  • Hot water heater. Why would you heat hot water? Just “water heater.”

Tautologies: Cheney calls this “The crudest form of redundancy.” It means to say the same thing that’s already been said.

  • He wrote his own autobiography.
  • He is popular with the people (as opposed to being popular with pigeons).
  • Glanced briefly (as opposed to a long glance. Glance refers to a quick look, so it is always brief.)
  • Free gift.
  • New innovation.
  • Exactly the same

Circumlocution: To talk around the point. Taking the long and wordy way to get to a point.


  • Google “Aaron Gansky Firsts in Fiction Sneaky Prose Killers” for prior podcasts that also address this.
    • As an editor, one of the first things I do is ask my clients to do a word search. How many “that’s”, “then’s”, “just’s”, and “so’s” are there? A good 90% of these can be eliminated, tightening up your writing without losing any of the story.
    • Aaron often says, “Trust the reader.” As a fairly new writer, but as an editor for new writers, I see this a lot. We’re prone to describe and interpret the scenes instead of letting them play out. So often, I want to detail the punchline to make sure the reader gets the joke. That’s an epic fail. If I can’t set up the joke properly, no amount of explanation will make it funny. If I do set it up, no explanation is needed.

2 thoughts on “Cleaning up Clutter and Cliches”

  • Great podcast. Aaron, I like the idea of using cliches to stimulate better ideas. Also, where can I find that short story, “At the Broken Places,” by Dennis Holcomb (or is it Holcombe)? Thanks to you all. As always, I’ve learned a lot from the Dynamic Trio. It that a cliche?

    • Thanks, Bruce! The story is by Dennis Fulgoni, and it was published in Black Heart Magazine. A quick Google search should pull it up for you.

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