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Avoid Clichés In Your Writing With This Giant List of Descriptors

Updated on July 3, 2018
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. She specializes in Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine


Good writing is devoid of clichés unless used for a very specific reason, intentionally and it is clear why it has been included. Otherwise, it’s best to avoid using clichés as they tend to annoy people, especially if there are a number of them though out the work. They also can lead to an impression of perceived laziness or a lack of concentration or careful editing. Some readers will skip over clichés so they end up missing the main point you were trying to make leaving them confused through the end of the novel. Getting tone of voice right in your fiction or other types of writing can be difficult but at the same time if you learn to avoid cliché’s it can become the defining characteristic of your work. Use the list presented here of alternate ways to describe or express common types of tone of voice instead of clichés.

"Don't Air Your Dirty Laundry"
"Don't Air Your Dirty Laundry"

What Are Cliches?

Gentle waves lap upon the shore, mountain towns are nestled in valleys, and at the end of the day there are still plenty of fish in the sea which is surrounded by trees with low hanging fruit. Boarding school chums are thick as thieves, as are once childhood friends, fraternity brothers, twin siblings and sometimes even thieves are as thick as thieves (yes, I’ve seen it written). Those who fail are avoided like the plague lest their bad luck rubs off on us, and should we start to have similar difficulties we are encouraged to think outside the box because every dog has its day. People can’t just be tired or even exhausted they must be fatigued. They can’t be messy, or unorganized they must be disheveled. No one feels sad or unhappy anymore they feel down in the mouth or despondent. But hopefully you aren’t gasping for breath or not sleeping a wink over the use of clichés. If you recognize some of these from your own writing don’t worry every writer falls for them, at some point.

Clichés didn’t start off as worn out descriptions. At some point the phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night” was fresh and gave readers the shivers instead of visions of snoopy dancing in their head and the phrase, “add insult to injury,” was admired as erudite. Using everyday activities as the source of a phrase or description such as, “to air your dirty laundry,” or “having an ax to grind,” was viewed as downright clever. But of course these have been overused like so many other expressions and now there are so many clichés that have found their way into our lexicon it is extremely difficult to always come up with a way to describe something that is original and not overused.

"I do solemnly swear. . . "
"I do solemnly swear. . . "

Not all Common Expressions are Clichés

Just because a phrase has been commonly reused does not make it a cliché. There are expressions that are almost always used for different ceremonies, festivals, formal affairs, and in the legal system. These are not considered clichés and they are generally expected depending on the circumstance. Not to use them and try to come up with another saying or phrase would be considered inappropriate as they fit the occasion or circumstance. Some of these include:

“I second the motion” (Courts)

“I now pronounce you man and wife” (Wedding Ceremony)

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” (Oath taking ceremony)

“Happy Birthday!”

Likewise, certain titles like “reverend” and “father” are attached to the names of church officials, while “Your Majesty” or “Your Royal Highness” are used for those in the (British) royal family. Such titles of address are not considered clichés as they are a part of established etiquette.

Octavio Paz - No More Cliches

Octavio Paz
Octavio Paz
The cliche referred to in this work is practice of   only considerring a woman's beauty in a love poem. To avoid this cliche, the poet says, he will instead  focus on women  "Whose beauty is in their charm, In their intelligence, In their character"
The cliche referred to in this work is practice of only considerring a woman's beauty in a love poem. To avoid this cliche, the poet says, he will instead focus on women "Whose beauty is in their charm, In their intelligence, In their character"

Opposite Exercise – Having Fun With Clichés

Before I go onto include a series of lists of ways to describe things without clichés here’s an exercise you can do alone or with others to make yourself more aware of the various phrases, sayings and descriptions that are considered clichés. To do it by yourself write a passage made up almost exclusively of clichés. Try to write around 150-300 words. You can use phrases to connect them but nothing as long as an independent sentence. If with friends have the first person start the exercise by choosing a cliché. The second person uses a connector phrase to transition into the next cliché. See how long you can keep it going. Use the list published here for ideas of cliches to include. This website has a cliche finder, where you can enter a word and get a cliche that includes it or generate 10 random cliches if you are specifically looking to include a cliche (yes, I know this article is about avoiding them but there are times you may want to use them. See more about this below.) Publish your masterpieces below in the comments section for everyone to enjoy! I'll enter mine first to start things off.

Here’s my quick effort at the exercise:

With regard to writing, all that glitters is not gold. The acid test of good writing, which may be all in a day’s work, is whether it’s viewed all over the map and if all other writing pales in comparison. Whereas some writing is clearly approached by some who just think “another day another dollar,” good writing goes beyond the pale and pulls out all the stops, as the writer really puts their heart into every word. Writer’s that write material that isn’t top notch often beat around the bush or beat a dead horse. However, writers that write well don’t just write down the bare bones they include the whole ball of wax, the whole nine yards, the whole enchilada and they don’t leave out the bells and whistles. Remember, all work that is worth anything is done in faith. Sometime writer’s block may leave you feeling like you’re banging you head against the wall but just take a deep breath and stick to your guns and before you know it you’ll be back on track. Writing well is not child’s play, but if you keep your nose to the grindstone and not just call it a day when you’re stuck, you’re more likely to find your muse. At the end of the day, bad writing just can’t hold a candle to good writing.

Let’s see your efforts regarding this exercise in the comments section. I’m sure there are many out there who can write something that’s really the cat’s meow and steals the show.

The Most Cliche-Filled Travel Review Ever

Travel reviews are among the most difficult type of writing to accomplish without cliches. This is because it is so easy to fall into the habit of describing places with phrases that sound so wonderful . . . and not only to you. Every travel writer seems to use certain phrases over and over to the point that it seems like there is only one beach location, one mountain location and one foreign location each just given a multitude of names. What else could account for the unbelievable number of pristine, sun kissed beaches that are off the beaten path yet surrounded by breath taken scenery, picturesque foreign locals each one a land of contrasts, known for their rich heritage and inhabited by friendly locals or quaint villages nestled away in hills with stunning landscapes and panoramic views. Take a look at this article to read the most-cliche-filled-travel-review-of-all-time (though I must say I've read dozens that are just as heavily laden).

Sometimes Only a Cliche Will Serve

Clichés don't always ruin your writing. In fact, they can be a part of tone and style of writing as one of the ways you appeal to readers. One of the main problems with using clichés is they limit original thinking. But this very issue can be the reason you decide to use clichés. If you have a character who you want to present as a bit lazy and lacking in original thought having him or her use too many cliché’s. I’m sure you’re heard what is probably the most common advice given to writers, show don’t tell. Having a character use clichés as a way to have the reader get to know them as a mediocre or lazy thinker is a great way to put this advice into play.

In this case, it's important to understand your purpose in using cliches and have a well articulated reason in mind when incorporating them into your text in oreder for them to come across in the manner that you wish. When deciding to use cliche's choose them wisely and most importantly make sure the cliche means what you think it does and serves the function in your writing that you intend. This article provides additional information on when and how to use cliches to their best advantage. .

Tone vs. Voice

Have you ever read something that didn’t feel right for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on? Perhaps the wording was awkward or possibly the language seemed too formal for what you thought should have been an informal, lighthearted view point? Maybe something about the style made you uncomfortable or the language was too simple or complex for the topic and author’s message. These are issues of tone. Tone is concerned with how a work is written and the way it feels to read it.

Tone in written work, reflects how the writer views the subject they are writing about, the characters or the audience and how they want it to come across. These two literary devices are generally communicated through the word choice used to express the viewpoint of a writer on a particular subject and impart an overall sense or feeling related to the work. This may be hope or dread, joy or sadness or any other emotion. It is instilled over the course of the work such that the reader may not be able to identify a single thing that is causing them to react the way they are. The tone can be conveyed formally, informally, seriously, comically, sarcastically, sadly, and cheerfully. Tone can also be scared, anxious, excited, depressed/depressing, foolish, smart or worried. Essentially tone can reflect any emotion, attitude or belief through the proper word choice. I’m sure everyone has heard the age old adage (possibly cliché), “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” In order to both express what you want and do it well while staying far from everyday clichés, you need to keep an eye on your word choice.

Voice is a little harder to describe, because it cannot be pinpointed at any specific part of the story. Voice is the unique style of the writer which imparts their views and personality within the writing. Voice is a combination of tone, mood, atmosphere and style which generates a ‘feel’ in an author’s writing which is generally found across all their work. This is not to say every story has the exact same feel. This is due to tone, which can change dramatically from one piece to another. The writer may have produced many works each with different styles, tones and moods but the way they are used together is unique even if they differ by which person they are written in, pace, subject matter, style and mood. There is still the sense of the author’s voice behind the narrator.

Before we get to the actual list, how about trying the exercise above again only this time try to use cliché’s just to describe tone and voice. Remember voice is based on you. You don’t have to try to write like someone else entirely to make a character entirely different from you. Even if you are focusing on tone, allow the writer you are to give rise to the voice of the piece, no matter how short your exercise may be. Here’s my attempt:

It was a dark and stormy night, the kind of storm not even a duck would be caught out dead in. The smell of burning rubber from a checkered cab speeding fast as if driven by a New Yorker despite this being Florida, permeated the air adding insult and injury to the smell of wet dog that sat heavy in the angry darkness like a water logged sponge yet to be wrung out. Rebecca sat brooding by the window, waiting for something to happen. But what?

Your turn. See if you can write a worse clichéd description depicting tone. Be sure to include yours in the comments section. I've also included an excellent webinar below on how writers can develop their voice and tone for their writing.

Webinar on Developing Tone and Voice in Your Writing

The Huge List of Tone and Voice Descriptors

Finally, here is the promised list of descriptors that can be included to indicate your desired tone and to better express your voice. When deciding on tone first settle on what type of tone you want to establish for each scene. For the purpose of tone I am intending scene to mean a part of the work that has the same consistent tone so it may not consist of a complete scene content-wise or may consists of more than one actual scene. As tone often changes over the course of a work especially if the piece is longer such as a novella or novel, it is important to make a deliberate decision about tone each time you feel the work calls for it to change. Make conscious decisions on which words best describe the various aspects of the work (e.g. setting, location, time of day, weather, people’s mood, events etc), to set the tone you want in each part of the work which has a consistent tone.

  • abashed
  • abrasive
  • abusive
  • accepting
  • acerbic
  • acquiescent
  • adenoidal
  • admiring
  • adoring
  • affectionate
  • aghast
  • allusive
  • amused
  • angry
  • anxious
  • apologetic
  • appealing
  • apprehensive
  • approving
  • arch
  • ardent
  • argumentative
  • audacious
  • awe-struck
  • bantering
  • begrudging
  • bemused
  • benevolent
  • biting
  • bitter
  • blithe
  • boastful
  • bored
  • breathy
  • bristling
  • brittle
  • brusque
  • calm
  • candid
  • caressing
  • caustic
  • cautionary
  • cavalier
  • childish
  • child-like
  • choleric
  • clipped
  • cold
  • complimentary
  • condescending
  • contemptuous
  • conversational
  • coy
  • critical
  • croaky
  • curt
  • cutting
  • cynical
  • dead
  • defamatory
  • denunciatory
  • derisive
  • despairing
  • detached
  • devil-may-care
  • didactic
  • diplomatic
  • disbelieving
  • discouraged
  • disdainful
  • disembodied
  • disparaging
  • disrespectful
  • distracted
  • docile
  • doubtful
  • dramatic
  • dreamy
  • dry
  • earnest
  • encouraging
  • ecstatic
  • entranced
  • enthusiastic
  • eulogistic
  • evasive
  • exhilarated
  • exultant
  • facetious
  • fanciful
  • farcical
  • fearful
  • flat
  • flippant
  • fond
  • forceful
  • frightened
  • fruity
  • ghoulish
  • giddy
  • gleeful
  • glum
  • grating
  • gravelly
  • grim
  • gritty
  • gruff
  • guarded
  • guilty
  • guttural
  • happy
  • harsh
  • haughty
  • heavy-hearted
  • high pitched
  • hollow
  • horrified
  • hoarse
  • honeyed
  • humorous
  • husky
  • hypercritical
  • imploring
  • inane
  • incredulous
  • indifferent
  • indulgent
  • ironic
  • irreverent
  • jaded
  • joking
  • joyful
  • languorous
  • languid
  • laudatory
  • light-hearted
  • lingering
  • loving
  • low
  • lyrical
  • marveling
  • melancholy
  • mistrustful
  • mocking
  • modulated
  • mysterious
  • naïve
  • neutral
  • nostalgic
  • objective
  • obsequious
  • orotund
  • peaceful
  • penetrating
  • pensive
  • pessimistic
  • pitiful
  • playful
  • poignant
  • pragmatic
  • proud
  • provocative
  • questioning
  • rallying
  • raucous
  • reflective
  • regretful
  • reminiscing
  • reproachful
  • resigned
  • respectful
  • restrained
  • reticent
  • reverent
  • ribald
  • ringing
  • rueful
  • sad
  • sarcastic
  • sardonic
  • satirical
  • satisfied
  • scathing
  • seductive
  • self-critical
  • self-dramatizing
  • self-justifying
  • self-mocking
  • self-pitying
  • self-satisfied
  • sensationalistic
  • sentimental
  • serious
  • severe
  • sharp
  • shocked
  • silly
  • silvery
  • sly
  • smug
  • solemn
  • somber
  • stentorian
  • stern
  • stentorian
  • straightforward
  • strangled
  • strident
  • stunned
  • subdued
  • swaggering
  • sweet
  • sympathetic
  • taunting
  • taut
  • tense
  • tight
  • thick
  • thin
  • thoughtful
  • threatening
  • throaty
  • tired
  • toneless
  • touchy
  • tremulous
  • trenchant
  • uncertain
  • understated
  • upset
  • urgent
  • vexed
  • vibrant
  • wary
  • wheezy
  • whimsical
  • withering
  • wobbly
  • wry
  • zealous

A Final Word

Finding the right tone and way of expressing your voice for a particular piece takes practice. Experiment with writing for a variety of audiences. Even if you only want to write fiction try press releases, opinion pieces, interviews. Newspaper copy, a business plan, a grant proposal, a comic or graphic story, a memoir piece, a description of a product, a book review. Many will say the more you write, the better you will become which is only partially true. If you practice the same format, genre and overall type of writing, that is the only type you will become better at. Yet the ability to write in a variety of tones depending on what you want to get across, how you want a character to be viewed and who your intended audience is will provide you with valuable flexibility. Becoming versatile in what you write and how you write it will allow you to create a piece with nuances that provide the reader with a sense or impression instead of hitting them over the head with obvious and time worn clichés. A final word to the wise, when it comes to description and tone of voice in particular, never beat a dead horse lest you leave your readers at their wits ends with an ax to grind regarding your writing.


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