Seek original images. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language. Reject cliches and "first-level creativity."
The mayor wants to rebuild a downtown in ruins but will not reveal the details of his plan. "He's playing his cards close to his vest," you write.
You have written a cliche, a worn-out metaphor. This one comes from the world of gambling, of course. The mayor's adversaries would love a peek at his hand. Whoever used this metaphor first, wrote something fresh. With overuse, it became familiar and stale.
"Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print," writes George Orwell. He argues that using cliches is a substitute for thinking, a form of automatic writing: "Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." Orwell's last phrase is a fresh image, a model of originality.
Cal Ripken is a superstar anomaly. His close-cropped hair is gray by genetics, not chartreuse, cerise, or hot pink by designer dye. He puts a ring around his bat while on deck, not through his nose, nipples, or other organs.
So what is the original writer to do? When tempted by a tired phrase, "white as snow," stop writing. Take what the practitioners of natural childbirth call a "cleansing breath." Then jot down the old phrase on a piece of paper. Start scribbling alternatives:
- White as snow.
- White as Snow White.
- Snowy white.
- Gray as city snow.
- White as Prince Charles.
Saul Pett, a reporter known for his style, once told me that he might have to create and reject more than a dozen images before the process led him to the right one. Such duty to craft should inspire us, but the strain of such effort can be discouraging. On deadline, write it straight: "The mayor was being secretive about his plans." If you fall back on the cliche, make sure there are no others around it.
More deadly than cliches of language are what Donald Murray calls "cliches of vision," the narrow frames through which writers learn to see the world. In "Writing to Deadline," Murray lists common blind spots: victims are always innocent, bureaucrats are lazy, politicians are corrupt, it's lonely at the top, the suburbs are boring.
I have described one cliche of vision as "first-level creativity." For example, it's impossible to survive a week of American journalism without reading or hearing the phrase: "But the dream became a nightmare."
This frame is so pervasive that it can be applied to almost any story: the golfer who shoots 33 on the front nine, but 44 on the back; the company CEO jailed for fraud; the woman who suffers from botched plastic surgery.
Writers who reach the first level of creativity think they are being original or clever. In fact, they settle for the ordinary, the dramatic or humorous place any writer can reach with minimal effort.
I remember the true story of a Florida man, who, walking home for lunch, fell into a ditch occupied by an alligator. The gator bit into the man, who was rescued by firefighters. In a writing workshop, I gave reporters a fact sheet from which they were to write five different leads for this story in five minutes. Some leads were straight and newsy, others nifty and distinctive. But almost everyone in the room, including me, had this version of a lead sentence:
When Robert Hudson headed home for lunch Thursday, little did he know that he'd become the meal.
We agreed that if 30 of us had landed on the same bit of humor, it must be obvious -- first level creativity. We discovered the next level in a lead that read: "Perhaps to a 10-foot alligator, Robert Hudson tastes like chicken." We also agreed that we preferred straight writing to the first pun that came to mind. What value is there in the story of a renegade rooster that mentions "foul play," or, even worse, "fowl play"?
Some forms of cleverness are irresistible. When the Salvador Dali Museum opened in St. Petersburg, Fla., who could blame the headline writer who typed out "Hello, Dali"? But if a dream never more becomes a nightmare, American journalism and the public it serves will be better for it.
- Read the newspaper today with a pencil in your hand and circle any phrase you are used to seeing in print.
- Apply this process to your own stories. Read some old ones and circle the cliches or tired phrases. Revise them with straight writing or original images.
- Brainstorm alternatives to these common metaphors: red as a rose, white as snow, brown as a berry, blue as the sky, cold as ice, hot as hell.
- Re-read some passages from your favorite writer. Can you find any cliches? Circle the most original and vivid images.