As I was getting up this morning, I misread a word on the cover of a book at my bedside as ‘smithereens’. You might think that’s an indication of the weird, not to mention possibly disturbing, way my mind works – but that’s not the point of this posting.
In my role as someone who critiques manuscripts for writers’ advisory services, I often pull new writers up on clichés. We all use them in everyday life and they’re perfectly harmless and can even be fun. In writing, however, they are considered poor style at best. At worst, they indicate laziness – the first phrase that springs to mind, without any thought given to its actual meaning or usefulness.
Clichés can be obvious, such as sitting bolt upright or they split their sides with laughter but they can be subtler that that. A lot of writers can’t resist adding that extra word just because it seems to belong there – door are always ‘firmly’ shut, things happen ‘suddenly’ (or worse still ‘all of a sudden’, which to me belongs only in fairy tales!).
Trust me, a work that is cliché-ridden is likely to irritate the agent or publisher you submit to! It just looks like you can’t be bothered to find an original way of saying things, that you use words without thinking of their meaning. I had a manuscript once which was like that, and featured the term serried ranks of people. I asked the writer if she knew what a serried rank actually was – specifically, what does serried mean? I certainly had to look it up!
Writing like that becomes predictable and, as I say, has a lazy feel to it. Which in a very convoluted way brings me on to ‘smithereens’ – a good candidate for a cliché as well as being a word that most of us couldn’t really, properly define.
An image I’ve retained from childhood is of someone called Smithers being blown to pieces, but the (anti)climax to this tale is that it probably comes from the Irish word smidirin, meaning, predictably, ‘small fragments’.