How to write delicious word pictures

and harness the limitless image library inside your head.

When you Google the phrase “happy as,” the first suggested result is “happy as a clam.” This is a writing cliché. And writing clichés, my dear friend, hold you back and make the rest of us sad.

Today, you shall kick clichés through those yellow-coated uprights over yonder. Next, you shall embrace originality and harness your innate ability to type a stunning word picture into existence. Let’s begin.

Hey. Get back here. Sit. I know this is scary, but it’s happening. Strap in.

Why you must destroy all clichés.

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” This unforgiving rule was laid down by George Orwell. He was a wise man, for he knew writers aren’t equipped with paint brushes. Most of us, in fact, simply suck at pictures. So we use keystrokes instead of brush strokes, and they are all we have.

When you regurgitate a phrase you’ve seen countless times before, it might seem like best practices. But what you’re really doing is giving your reader permission to roll their eyes and forget your words entirely. That is not an ideal outcome.

I get it. I’ve done it. Writing something you’ve seen before is easy and safe. But it’s totally forgettable, and it makes you worse as a writer. Instead:

Be original.

It’s not easy. Conjuring unique combinations of words takes time, which you might not always have. Even more daunting is the fact that originality takes guts. Sending words that are 100% yours out into the world is a vulnerable and terrifying prospect. Clichés might not be unique, but at least they’re accepted. Your words might not be remembered, but at least they won’t be judged.

A pep talk.

I have yet to encounter a feeling like the one I experience when I know I’ve written a unique and memorable phrase. I’m a copywriter, so it’s typically headlines and concepts that give me that fix. For you, it might be perfect prose, or fiction or poetry or screenwriting.

The feeling doesn’t show up often. But when it does, you can bet your bouncing backside it’ll make your day. You’ll practically hear your soul thanking you for remembering to fill its tank. Only through original words, uniquely yours, is this feeling possible. Seek originality.

An exercise.

If you please, allow me to continue my gleeful bake of “happy as a clam.” Two centuries ago, the phrase “happy as a clam at high water” was first printed somewhere in the northeastern United States. High tide, you see, is when clams are free from salivating predators. An unthreatened clam is, apparently, a happy one. Kind of a cool origin story, yeah?

Here’s the thing. That phrase might have meant something to noreasterners in the 1830s, but it means nothing to you and me. So instead of leaning on a cliché both you and your reader aren’t attached to, brainstorm a big ol’ list of unique alternatives. Such as:

  • Happy as Christmas morning
  • Happy as Bart on a snow day
  • Happy as a toddler with your iPhone
  • Happy as a Golden
  • Happy as a Honda with an oil change
  • Happy as a home alone cat
  • Happy as a dog with couch privileges
  • Happy as a clam bake

Jotting bullet point alternatives does not take long. Whenever you feel tempted to use a cliché, take a couple minutes and make a list. Most of your alts will be trash, but hey, welcome to writing. All you need is one.

Quick thank yous to Roy Peter Clark, whose book, Writing Tools, inspired this story. Also, shoutout to my friends at Medium. I started this story on my laptop, then seamlessly finished it on my phone. That is super cool.

If writing advice is something you want, feel free to follow me or Words for Life. Be warned: I occasionally write idiotic things like this and this and this.

If you enjoyed this story, slap a recommend and a share on it. It helps quite a bit. Best of luck to you as you paint your next word picture.