How to be an Original Writer and Avoid Clichés | Duncan Koerber | Skillshare

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How to be an Original Writer and Avoid Clichés

teacher avatar Duncan Koerber, University Professor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
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Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

6 Lessons (17m)
    • 1. Course Overview

    • 2. Introduction to Original Writing

    • 3. Recognizing Clichés

    • 4. So Why Do People Use Clichés?

    • 5. When It's Okay to Use a Cliché

    • 6. Being Original through Detail

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About This Class

Ever worry that your sentences are not unique? Literary and cultural influence is so strong that many writers turn to clichés as substitutes for original meaning that entices readers.

In this mini-course, you'll learn just what a sentence-level writing cliché is and why it's such a problem, from the author of Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

Being an original writer is not as hard as you may think. In this course I argue that recognizing clichés in your culture and publications is a great first step. Then you must remove them from your writing like removing weeds from your lawn. I also briefly discuss how to add real-life detail. 

Meet Your Teacher

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Duncan Koerber

University Professor


Dr. Duncan Koerber has taught writing and communications courses for the past 10 years at six Canadian universities to thousands of students.

Currently a full-time assistant professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, Duncan Koerber worked for nearly 10 years in reporting and editing roles for the London Free Press, the Mississauga News, and the University of Toronto Medium. He has freelanced for magazines and newspapers, including the Toronto Star.

Oxford University Press recently published his writing textbook, Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing (2015). Available on Amazon, the book considers the seven most common errors (interfering factors) in writing and how to improve them (enhancing factors). His second book, Crisis Communication... See full profile

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1. Course Overview: Welcome to the How to be an original writer and avoid cliches mini-course. Every beginning writer wants to write in an original way, but doesn't necessarily know how to do it. A big challenge to original writing is cliches and you probably have some of these in your writing right now. This course explains what a cliche is and helps you identify them in your own writing. Cliches should only be used in a few situations. And I show you when it's okay to use them. My name is Duncan Carver and I've been teaching, writing and editing and proofreading the university level for 11 years. Before that, I spent ten years as a newspaper journalist. And recently I published a book with Oxford University Press about effective rate. If you can apply these lessons, you'll remove all the cliches and your natural originality will shine through. So let's get started on your journey to becoming an original writer. 2. Introduction to Original Writing: being an original writer that is expressing new fresh ideas in a voice that is uniquely yours is very difficult, particularly if you're a beginning writer. Many new writers tend to bend under the weight of literary cultural influences. They like to emulate those styles of other writers. Sometimes they even coffee exact phrasings, as we see with plagiarism and university and college papers. Sometimes those beginning writers draw on old sayings passed down from there. Grand parents and the Grand Parents parents. Essentially, they copy ideas now, contrary to what you might think original language original writing is not language that's never been written or spoken before. That is impossible. We share a language. We share a culture. We have to use the common linguistic resources that we have to make meaning. Without those common linguistic resources, Week wouldn't be able to communicate at all. Writing just cannot be an individual task without any influence at all. So the writer, that imaginary great writer who seems unaffected by his or her culture doesn't exist, So I define originality in a different way. You can be original within limits of your culture and your language, but I think of originality has frequency, so words that circulate frequently are two familiars. They do not feel fresh and original, but infrequently used language looks and sounds interesting. Your readers won't have seen it before on the page, or at least not that often. So this idea of frequent versus infrequent should guide you as a writer because readers, particularly teachers and editors, delight in original language. And I think most of you know that feeling of encountering a less frequent word or phrase. When you hear someone say something in a way you haven't heard before, you enjoy it, and then sometimes you go and borrow it. You use it in your own conversation. Because language is social, it changes. It adapts language we accept as the norm. Today is often language that was very fresh and new decades ago. Think of these or words and phrases and how popular and frequent. They are totally awesome. Bling Dude, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. All of these what we know as common frequent language over the last 10 20 years, probably excited people when it was first hurt. That's why people use that language. So it became unoriginal. Now, when you say something like bling, it's almost ironic, in a sense, you're not using it in an original way. So like a viral video on YouTube, certain words and phrases have passed from person to person year after year until they become widely known and part of our linguistic and cultural heritage. And the media plays a part in this, obviously getting those circulating those phrases and words to wide audiences. But sometimes it becomes a little too easy to borrow that language that everyone else is using and put together sentences in a cliche aid way. And that's what this set of lectures is all about. And that is the cliche. We can think of cliches in a lot of fields, a cliche and fashion is something that's not cool anymore. Imagine someone coming today wearing the old 19 sixties tied. I close those air cliche, close their certain haircuts or cliche and also words. So simply a cliche is a word or phrase that has become unoriginal through overuse. And I think what you need to do is writers develop that recognition of hot and cold language, so language that is hot, a stuff that's being overused and cool or cold language, a stuff that still seems fresh because it hasn't been over you that's not worn out. If you can recognize those cliches, you can get them out of your writing. 3. Recognizing Clichés: the first way to be an original writer is to recognize that cliches within your culture within your field, within the audience that you're writing for. If you have too many cliches in your writing, some readers will actually tune out certainly well educated readers. We'll tune out of your writing completely. So what are cliches? What do they look like? While many cliches are passed down sayings from generation to generation So that is, we've for gotten that they have a history, and my writing classes all often ask students to tell me the meaning or the origins behind the cliche once in a blue moon. So let's say I put that in a sentence like he cleans his room once in a blue moon. Now we know once in a Blue Moon is very common cliche. It's a well worn phrase. It doesn't have any originality. It all, and we know intuitively in the English language. That cliche means he cleans his room infrequently. But what's the Blue Moon part all about? Now? I had to look this up. I didn't know what Blue Moon really meant, So if you look it up on the cliche sites and you can go to websites of fine cliches. It is simply when you get two full moons in the same month, and it has nothing to do with being blue. So this cosmic rarity happens on Lee about every 28 to 30 months. That's why we get that feeling that it's a rare event. But I had to look that up. So what culture would have produced this metaphor? While it's not our digital age, we don't even look at the moon much anymore. We're more rooted in our computers instead of the once in a Blue moon. Cliche would have been rooted in a natural world where farmers took a key interest in the changes in our environment, the sun, the moon. Now our lives today don't depend on these factors anymore. So are cliches would not be born out of the natural world. They would, perhaps he born out of the computer world. So now on the slide, I'm gonna list a bunch of cliches and I want you to fill in the blanks. Let's see how fast we can do this. It's raining cats in Don't bite the hand that she's is free as ah, he's a pain in the last, but not the princess lived happily. His daughter was the apple of still waters run. You should walk a mile in my his back was against the I'm sure you could fill in those fairly easily. And that's because these are just such common phrases there, so unoriginal that you could actually know the end of the sentence without me actually telling you. And you don't want your readers to know where you're going before they even get to the end of the sentence. Now here's some longer cliche sentences. See if you can pick out the cliches, were sick and tired of the tried and true approach to office management and are seeking a breath of fresh air from the new plan. It was raining cats and dogs, but we slept like logs through the storm. She stopped dead in her tracks. Lying on the floor was her son, crying his eyes out. I get a kick out of seeing you have a whale of a good time. The naked truth is that he's the ace in the hole for the company, so I made these up. But these kinds of cliches get used very often. Finally, let's look at a few phrases and words that are cliche now that remind us of a different era . They say to you, We're gonna be talking jive or everything's very groovy. You probably think of the 19 sixties and 19 seventies. The cliche word awesome reminds me at least of the 19 eighties. The phrase my bad. If you grew up in the U. S. Or Canada in the 19 nineties, you probably heard that a lot. Now, most of us don't use these phrases that much anymore because they've kind of died off a bit . And if you use them and maybe as a joke. So in this lecture, I have given you a basic appreciation of cliches. Well worn phrase is now it's your turn to develop your eye for finding these. Because, of course, I can't list them all. I mentioned this lecture. There are cliche sites. You can go to those websites and look around and search for some cliches. If you're not sure exactly what is a cliche. Also, you need to read widely. So if you want to become a great writer, the start of that is to read, read the kind of writing that you want to produce at a high quality. So, for example, if you're interested in creative nonfiction, I would suggest reading a magazine like The New Yorker. There are no cliches in The New Yorker. There's a lot of originality, and if you're reading that kind of material regularly, then you will intuitively understand what is fresh in culture today in language today. 4. So Why Do People Use Clichés?: So if cliches air so bad, why do we still see them even see them in the mainstream media? We see politicians using them. We see journalists. How did they slip into other people's writing? Well, first of all, one could be a lack of awareness. So if you don't know what's a cliche, then of course you're gonna use them in your newspaper articles, your websites or blog's your books. If you're not reading the works of other people in whatever area you enjoy high quality writers, you won't know what words and phrases have reached that status a high point of frequency as a cliche. Also, if you are not born in a English speaking or western country or culture, you may not recognize some phrases you hear use as cliches. Now, if you're born here, you probably recognize it as I have been born in a Western country and was speaking country . But if you're new to the West, you knew Teoh English. You may not recognize that cause you're totally new to this, but in your own language in your own culture that you were born into. I'm sure there are cliches as well, but they may be a little different than the ones we use. Cliches are often used also as an easy way out. Writing is difficult work. It's challenging. To be original is challenging to come up with a new way of saying something. It's much easier to to string together a bunch of cliches. And there are some newspapers, popular newspapers in my city. There's a newspaper called The Toronto Sun, and it's riddled with cliches. If you're at the check out line of the department store of the drug store, you will probably see a lot of magazines, cheap magazines for fashion and entertainment, that air full of cliches because it's just so easy to write that kind of material. And they're not trying to be, ah, high level magazine or newspaper. Also, some journalists, particularly in those populist newspapers, feel their audiences don't really care about using cliches. And, of course, when you use a cliche, it's often quick, easy meaning. They think that some of their money, its members respond favorably to cliches, and that may be true. But not everybody is that way. And certainly great editors great writers and know that that's a problem. Finally, there's actually some writers who believe that it's stylish to use cliches. It's cool to use cliches. I call those people the egotistical stylists. They are emphasizing the form of what they're saying, the popularity of that form over the substance of what they're saying. So look back to your previous writing. Maybe take a piece of writing that you wrote last year, a few months ago and look around. See if you've got cliches and try to edit them out, try to change them. There's gonna be challenging. It's hard, hard work to be original, but it's important to be able to recognize these cliches popping up in your writing. 5. When It's Okay to Use a Cliché: Now I've spent this set of lectures railing against the cliche, encouraging you to be original. But there are times when it is okay to use the cliche. So what are those cases? Well, first of all, let's think of dialogue in a fiction novel. Sometimes in stories. Cliches helped to create realistic dialogue of a specific period of time in our history. Perhaps your grandmother loves to say the cliche phrase, Ah, bird in the hand is worth two in the bush in a story about your grandmother. You wouldn't edit this sentence because that's the way she typically speaks. She's from a different time. When that was a cool phrase, an interesting phrase. Maybe she encountered it as a child when it was original. Now, second, you can use cliches to create an atmosphere of the past of a particular time or era. So if you want to establish the atmosphere in a story of a high school cafeteria in the 19 eighties, then you want to bring in the cliches that belong to that 19 eighties period. If you want to establish the atmosphere of a factory assembly line that I'm sure there are cliches that belong to that scene that will help you capture that feeling well. Hairdressing salons, Children's sandboxes, a chemistry class, a university, an athletic locker room. There are cliches in all of those spaces now and also in the past. The third time that cliches are okay is when you are playing with, um, so if you want to switch them up a bit, you can change them. For example, think of the old phrase a bull in a China shop. Have you ever heard that phrase? That's what's to mean. That someone who is not delicate, the running around there, just wild and crazy, and they're destroying things. Well, maybe somebody could change it to a bull in a pastry shop, which may have some different meanings. There's an old saying Cool as a cucumber. What if you change it to cool is a carat. Maybe that says something different. Also, comedians use cliches all the time, and they're giving us a little wink. They're not trying to be original with these. A few years ago, there was a great National Hockey League commercial in Canada. They poked fun at sports cliches, so a lot of professional athletes will say things in a cliche aid way like I'm going to give 110% today. I'm going to take it one day at a time. 6. Being Original through Detail: So finally, I have given you examples of cliches I've shown when you can use them now. Some people would say, Is that it? Is that all I have to do to be original? And really, I'm kind of coming out originality from a reverse angle or position, and that is, let's get cliches out of you're writing first, and then the original goodness will shine through, and that's really all you need to do. So the process is simply to develop your sensibility for cliches through reading current writing in publications you enjoy. Now, if you like to read old novels Victorian novels, you're not gonna learn about the current cliches. So read high level current publications. Second, remove cliches is often as you can while you're revising your writing, and I've shown you what some of those are today in this lecture. Next, I would say, use effective detail to describe situations One way people do that is to let's say they want to write about the subway. You know, what is it like to have a character in their story on the subway? Well, some people will actually go to their local subway and they'll write down details of the train, the sound of the train, the people on the train and they use those details in their fiction writing. So that's really effective in the moment kind of detail. And also you can use fresh figurative language when you're comfortable with. So all cliches air figurative language in some sense. So these are often combining realms of experience, and they come in the form of similes, which are phrases they use like or as something is like this, or as this, or metaphors, which are a little bit more complex. And they combine or relate to separate realms of experience. Now that's high level stuff, and you don't have to do that. Just describe things in an honest, straightforward way, and I think that's enough. But sometimes you can add your own metaphors. And who knows? You may create the next cliche of your own