A sign of a more sophisticated writer is one who can write with strong description, interesting similes and metaphors. Unfortunately, in an attempt to include more description and imagery, students often pull from a bank of overused, voiceless and predictable cliches.
A cliche is not just something that lots of people say (e.g. “cool” or “awesome”); it’s something that also conveys a message. For example, lots of people say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” The message that is conveyed is that it is raining heavy and hard.
In order for students to steer clear of the cliche, they need to understand what it is and to identify examples. Have students collect cliches from reading and real-life text (e.g. magazines, newspapers, etc.). Post lists of cliches, or have students keep them in their writer’s notebooks on a page marked “taboo.”
Another way to recognize a cliche in writing or reading is to put it through a simple test: If you read the first half of the sentence and can guess how it’s going to end, then it’s a cliche.
Once students recognize cliches, then you’re ready to have students learn how to revise/replace these worn-out phrases with fresh, lively images. The greatest comparisons are those defined by their uniqueness–not their overused redundancy. Students need to be challenged to replace the cliches hiding within their own writing with three different ideas for the same message. (Have students mark which of their three versions they like best. Often it’s not the first one they thought of.) Have them practice orally with some of the examples first, like “It was raining so hard it was…” Encourage the students to come up with several non-cliche options to convey that message. Then ask students to look at abandoned pieces of writing to find any hidden cliches. Have students replace each found phrase with three new ideas. NOTE: If they can’t find any cliched figurative language in their writing, challenge them to add a few and then follow through with three options for each one.
Be patient as students develop their innovative muscles. Some of the new figurative language may sound awkward and unusual–but that beats the predictable any day!