Writing Hacks: Find Your Voice by Dropping the Thesaurus

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

As we’ve mentioned before, a huge vocabulary and multisyllabic words aren’t required for great writing.

So if that’s true, what do you do when you come up against a cliché. So like, for example, he or she “clenched their fists.”

From an amazing article by Kathy Steinemann

…a Google search for “he clenched his fists” produces over 116,000 results, and “she clenched her fists” yields over 58,500. Try the searches yourself (including quotation marks) to confirm.

So now’s the time you find a thesaurus, right? Nah. That just leads to more problems. And it’s what everyone else does.

Writers often abuse the most common replacement.

“He balled his hands into fists”—27,000 Google results

“She balled her hands into fists”—23,100 Google results

So what do you do? Maybe stop thinking about words, and start thinking about the emotion that’s lurking beneath the cliche.

Clenched fists might be a sign of:

Aggression, anger, anguish, annoyance, antagonism, anxiety, defiance, determination, flight-or-fight response, frustration, hostility, irritation, jealousy, pessimism, rage, stress, stubbornness, uncertainty, worry.

Try to show these emotions. The following list provides a few suggestions. If you imagine how each emotion makes you react, you could replace clenched fists with your own body language or physical responses.

This is the path to your voice: when you encounter a cliché, really sit with what the cliché is trying to express — what it expressed effectively back before it became a cliché and lost its expressive power.

Then when you’re sitting with the feeling or intent behind the cliché, start free writing until you’ve gotten at something that holds a charge.

The answer might not even be fists, it might not even be a phrase. You might discover that to really get across what’s happening in that moment needs a lot more, a lot less, something totally different, or absolutely nothing.

Surprise and move yourself, and you’ll surprise and move the reader!

See previous writing hacks here!

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