I sometimes catch myself writing excessively clichéd descriptions - not in the words, but in what the characters do. For example, they always seems to end up pacing up and down the room while waiting for some key event to unfurl.

I use various Python scripts to automatically check my writing in other ways, and wondered if there was a list of these sorts of hackneyed actions I could build into that, in the hope of alerting myself that I'd just written yet more nonsense.

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    Although I can understand writing a computer program to check your writing might seem appealing (I not only use spelling checkers, etc. I write software as a hobby), it seems to me that nothing beats careful re-reading and editing of my work. Reading it out loud can help. May 14 '15 at 16:32
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    I was writing a historical novel with a large number of real people and a large number of places. I originally wrote the code to keep a check that they really could all be where they were alleged to be, ages matched up, had time to travel between venues etc. It just sort of developed from there.
    – havlock
    May 14 '15 at 16:49
  • wow, I think you should market and sell that instead! A program to help you keep track of all your characters' comings and goings? You could sell that to novelists, screenwriters, TV producers... May 14 '15 at 18:01
  • On the topic of pacing, it's something I always try to avoid because for the life of me I can't remember ever pacing, nor seeing anyone I know pace back and forth. Do people really "pace" unless they're a little mentally unstable or something? May 15 '15 at 2:27
  • @Lauren Ipsum Alas, not marketable. It does exactly what I want, but in a clunky and unreliable manner. If a bug annoys me enough it gets fixed, otherwise I just live with it. To turn it into a product would be hundreds of hours work.
    – havlock
    May 15 '15 at 6:52

Clichéd descriptions and hackneyed actions exist in writing because they are such common occurrences in real life. For example, when people are waiting anxiously for something, they often really do pace up and down the room. I've done it; you've done it. And people often use clichés in real life, e.g., "it's raining cats and dogs out there" or "she was mad as hell." So, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with having clichés and hackneyed actions as a part of your writing. They become bad when they either appear too often, or appear out of the blue with no prior (or even post) explanation. The worst is when they occur simply to rescue your protagonist from a corner you've painted him into. Then you're using a cliché to bring about the dreaded deus ex machine (already a major cliché).

As for a list: The problem with providing a list of clichés and hackneyed actions is that it would basically consist of a list of things that are so commonly said and done in real life that they speak for themselves. They are a shorthand for something more. You wind up inadvertently breaking the "show, don't tell" rule, because when an action (the "show") is clichéd or hackneyed, it is really a "tell" in disguise.

John paced about the room = John was nervous.

John wolfed his food down = John was very hungry.

However, you can use this to your advantage, provided the main point of the paragraph is something else:

John wolfed his food down while he told about the soldiers in the forest. "They had all the roads covered -- even the deer trails. I had to climb Spine Rocks and crawl along the ridge at night." He gulped a swig of mead. "Took me three days. Thought I was a dead man." He got up and paced around the room. "What I want to know is, how did they know I'd be going through the forest? Do we have a traitor, or does Queen Hecate have the Seer Stone?"


There is an immense collection of common tropes and clichés, with plentiful usage examples, at tvtropes.

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    Please be warned: TVTropes is an enormous time-suck. It's a great, entertaining site full of useful information and useless trivia, and has been known to eat entire weekends. By all means go, but pee first and pack a lunch. May 14 '15 at 13:36
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    Also, note that tropes are not necessarily bad, if you use them on purpose, sufficiently disguise them, and don't over-do it. Really, there are so many tropes that it is probably impossible to write a decent story without using some.
    – dmm
    May 14 '15 at 14:57
  • @dmm it IS impossible, since they have tropes like Macguffin (something that starts the story), Crowning Moment of Awesome (if someone does something spectacular or incredibly funny),... there are tropes for every profession, for every level of competence, for every age, gender, sexual preference,...
    – Nzall
    May 14 '15 at 19:10

People do pace up and down when tense. It's hardly more of a cliché than depicting them as crying when sad. Make them say or think surprising and non-clichéd things while they pace.


While some computer programs are helpful in simple tasks, they can't pick out things like clichés, redundancies, and word salad (unnecessary filler words). That requires the fresh perspective, which can only come from others such as fellow writers, beta readers, editors, etc.

The best advice for any writer is to read your manuscript aloud, rewrite, get it critiqued by others, and get it edited. By editing, I mean by someone else. Doing it yourself is called revising...though working with an editor includes back-and-forth revisions.

My advice isn't influenced by the fact that I'm an editor. I'm also a writer who can't edit her own work. We all need help (Even Stephen King or J.K. Rowling need editors). So, don't feel bad. Keep your eyes wide open. Good luck with your writing!

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