Familiar Turns of Phrase

A while back I got one of those nice rejections that makes you want to smile as wide as the nearest river and cry yourself a river all at the same time. The agent loved my pacing and “strong sense of narrative,” but thought I used too many “familiar turns of phrase.”

My critique partners all said, “No way.” (Love those guys!) But I decided to read through my manuscript again and see what the agent meant. And I found plenty. I found a handful of phrases that my CPs probably glossed over because they’re not actually clichés, but that made the writing more accessible. Things like: Yesterday afternoon, excitement to go out with Vincent had me jumping out of my skin

Not so bad, right? However, I realized something important. Those familiar phrases are a fabulous opportunity to strengthen your character’s voice. Would Sophie actually think the words jumping out of my skin? No, probably not. She’d say something related to dancing – leaping off a stage or pirouettes in her stomach. No, even better, fouettés in the stomach because that involves a bit of a kick. Comparing her excitement to a ballet term makes Sophie a more genuine character and reminds the reader about her connection to dance.

Here’s another example: …I jumped out of bed, blood rushing through my veins

Do people really jump out of bed? Not once they’re older than about nine years old. The blood rushing is probably a cliché, so it definitely needed to be changed. Here I chose to just delete the clichéd description and tell the reader how Sophie is feeling. Sometimes a well-placed tell is more effective than overly physical showing. (But that’s for another blog post.)

And another: My skin crawled.

Okay, apparently we should avoid the word jump unless it fits the action, and stop using the skin to describe emotions.

You get the idea, right? Those three examples are all from the first three chapters. Two of them got deleted and one changed to enhance voice. Bing bang boom I’ve got a stronger beginning.

If you’re brave enough, post your own example in the comments and how you think you should improve it.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Familiar Turns of Phrase

  1. It can be so hard, cant’ it? All those things we really say every day that are metaphors or hyperbole… frowned on in the writing. Probably also colloquial, so their meaning might strike someone from another region odd… far better to keep it simple and literal or spend the time with FRESH metaphors that truly fit–your ballet terms are very good.

  2. I love feedback with rejections, tough but helpful! Keep going!

  3. 😦 I’m not that courageous to share any portion of my writing online yet. (I tried once and could hardly recover from it).
    However from the examples you shared I can understand this aspect of writing. More than likely my manuscript is full of it.
    Good luck with your revisions.

  4. AWESOME examples! Love it. And I love your solution, especially the ballet metaphor. Nice. And you did exactly the right thing, treated the feedback as a treasure and pursued it to strengthen your story.

  5. Aww, how nice to get a personalised rejection. Seems a funny reason to reject an author, though – surely such turns of phrase can be easily fixed?

  6. Catherine Johnson

    Well the good thing is they are easy things to fix when you know to look for them. And then re-submit 🙂

  7. I have cliched and overused phrases a lot in my first draft, but then I go over them and replace them with something fresher. Isn’t it good to see how we can strengthen our writing? Kudos to you for taking the advice and improving your work that way!

  8. This sounds very hopeful! Your story is going to improve so much on the strength of that editor’s suggestions, and next time out maybe you’ll make the sale! I think it’s easier to fix a few language issues than plot or pacing or characterization, so it really sounds like you’re on the right track. Good luck!

  9. Your examples were eye-openers, (pardon the cliche!) You’ve come up with a solution that deepens Sophie’s character and makes the story more vibrant. Way to go!

  10. I love how familiar turns of phrases in the first draft can be edited into more unique and character-enhancing touches during revision. Whenever I discover one and fix it (even though it takes more work), I do a happy dance. I love your example of fouettés in the stomach!

  11. Boo on the R; yay on the feedback!!!! You give great examples here.

  12. This never even occurred to me! Thanks for the post and (seriously) thanks for the examples! I will definitely be on the lookout for these phrases when I begin to edit my novel!

  13. From your example I can get how you missed these familiar turns of phrases and now need to revise. But it’s encouraging that you got feedback.

    All the best with your revisions!

  14. Wow. New filter alarm. I’ll bet I’ve let plenty of those slip. *Grabs magnifying glass* Time for a closer look.

  15. Thanks for sharing examples from your manuscript. You’re right–they’re not cliche. I’m going through my manuscript with a fine tooth comb. No, not a fine tooth comb. Hmmm, with a magnifying glass? A cliche/common phrase crusher? Better than with eagle eyes, right?

  16. I always think it is amazing what we find when it is so “kindly” pointed out that we know better not to do, yet we do it anyway.

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