How to self edit your novel: clichés and common phrases

Welcome to my editing series of blogs, all designed to help you self edit your novel effectively. This blog will hopefully help you, an indie author, to self edit clichés and common phrases within your manuscript, before sending your novel to an editor.

Clichés are lazy, unimaginative, and often predictable phrases. They won’t offend your reader or interrupt your story, but they won’t impress either. Clichés are not memorable and if your writing contains too many, it runs the risk of being forgettable, and who wants to write something forgettable? Therefore, this blog is going to outline how to self edit the clichés and common phrases out of your novel.

Here are some classic cliché/common phrase examples I have read in published books before:

1) She was as cold as ice. / An ice cold chill ran down her spine.

Everyone knows ice is cold. What else is cold? What other word(s) could replace the word cold? Try using a thesaurus to generate better vocabulary.

What happens to someone when they are cold? Show the reader the coldness of your character, don’t just tell them using a tired cliché.

2) He fell head over heels in love. / She fell for him, hook, line and sinker.

A tumbling metaphor and a fishing analogy – really? These are OLD! How does love feel? What does it do to your body, your mind? What might a character do or say that shows the reader he or she is in love?

Poems can be fantastic inspiration for descriptions of thoughts and feelings associated with love, however, ideas can come from everywhere. I read an article recently – 11 signs that you’re falling in love, according to science – which was really insightful and prompted a few brain bookmarks for later!

3) It was as dark as night. / It was as black as midnight.

Describing darkness is really describing atmosphere, so describe atmosphere instead! If it’s dark, what senses other than sight are heightened, and how?

What else is associated with darkness or midnight? Descriptionari has some great, vivid examples, including:

“I like the night, it hides my flaws, my imperfections, the scars burned onto my flesh, the stabs of knives left behind.”

4) He was as tough as nails. / He came from the wrong side of the tracks.

Everyone understands what these clichés mean but there are better ways to describe a character’s history or mentality or personality than these worn out expressions. Why is a character tough – were they always, or has something happened to make them that way?

Think of great books you have read where a character needs to be tough because of their history or environment or experiences. A fantastic example of a ‘wrong side of the tracks’ situation is in The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins describes it perfectly:

“District 12: Where you can starve to death in safety.”

5) She was hell bent on revenge. / Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Revenge is such an emotive character propeller, the reader really needs to understand the reasons why someone is ‘hell bent’ on it. The idea that a character waits and plots and plans before exacting revenge is so sinister. It means they may be: focused, cunning, secretive, blinkered and inclined towards vigilantism. There are many more interesting ways of describing those character traits than just ‘hell bent’!

Whenever you spot a cliché in your book, edit it by challenging yourself to replace it with something more creative. Nothing ridiculous – over the top, completely unrelated similes or metaphors can end up being memorable for the wrong reasons – but something realistic and relatable yet well put. A great example I read a while ago was in ‘Caught’ by Harlan Coben. Instead of  the cliché ‘Her room looked like a bombsite’, Coben wrote:

“Her room looked as if someone had strategically placed sticks of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.”

I was so impressed with this description I remembered it! Not only did I remember it, I thought it was so good I wanted to tell other people about it in a blog post – that, to me, is excellent writing. What impressive descriptions have you read recently?

A brilliant resource for checking how many clichés you have used throughout your book is It doesn’t, however, tell you what clichés they are so it will challenge you further to find them yourself!

Self Editing Skills

As a professional editor and proofreader, as well as a debut author, I hope my training and experience will help you develop the skills and confidence to edit your own book to a very high standard. Whether you then go on to query your novel with a traditional publisher, or secure the services of a freelance editor and/or proofreader before self publishing, you will know that you have already given your novel a great chance of being received as positively as possible.

If you have enjoyed this blog and need further tips on how to self edit your novel, or writing in general, take a look at:

5 easy ways to make your first novel better

How to deconstruct a novel to write your own

Which is the best way to write your first novel?