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Exercises: Cliches and Lazy-Ass Language

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Make a list of ten of your favorite words to say.  Put this list away for later.

On a separate sheet of paper, write a list of ten cliches (expressions, turns of phrase, or familiar similes).  Take no more than ten minutes.

Once everyone has turned in their lists, they will be redistributed to members of the class.  Each person must then rewrite each of the ten phrases on the list in a way that is wholly original but imagistic.  Each images be concrete and rely on active verbs and sensory detail.  Use no abstractions unless they resolve in similes and other analogies, and avoid depending on descriptors to do the job (i.e., adjectives and adverbs).  Strive to use vocabulary that is enjoyable to pronounce; make the new versions as sensual to say as they are to imagine.


  • quiet as a mouse = the quiet of storm-soaked grass in Kansas
  • hover like flies = orbit each other like two hardboiled eggs on a plate
  • since time immemorial = since moss first crept into rock and called it home
  • this room is cold as hell = a room as chill as the sluice of a champagne bucket

Gather into groups of three, and read your lists with the rest of the group. (If you are the original author of the list of ten cliches, do not disclose this until after the exercise is over.)  As a group, decide which is the best revision of a cliche from each list; write them down for yourself.  Then, break from your groups and write your own poem of 6 - 10 lines that uses all three of those expressions somewhere in the poem.  DO NOT MAKE YOUR POEM FORMAL OR RHYMING.  Use any of the favorite words you like to say, and incorporate them into your poem where they are appropriate.  (Please don't try to write a poem containing all of the words.  Make the poem your purpose, not the game.)



Write down five of your favorite words to say, not because you like what they mean, but because you like the sound of them.  Be ready to tell the class one of them.  (You won't have to justify it.)


  1. coccyx
  2. thimble
  3. plique-a-jour
  4. glissando
  5. brux 


Think of several words (that aren't proper nouns) beginning with the following prefixes or letters:


Write down something that rhymes with each of the following.  (You may use more than one word in your answer.)
E.g.:  Mexico = sexy toe

  • laryngitis =
  • intoxicated =
  • reconcile =
  • wisteria =
  • ballistically = 


Convert five of the following cliched analogies into fresh images:

  • to look like death warmed over
  • drink like a sailor, a fish
  • hot as hell
  • as big as a house
  • as blind as a bat
  • as busy as a bee
  • as sharp as a razor
  • as thick as London Fog
  • as thick as thieves
  • go over like a lead balloon
  • avoid like the plague
  • stick out like a sore thumb
  • put him down like a mad dog
  • work like a dog
  • dead as a doornail
  • cry like a baby
  • scream like a girl
  • howl like a wolf
  • dive like a swan

Change, and complete, five (only 5) of the following analogies without using a cliche:

  • dance like a
  • crumple like
  • burst like
  • as simple as
  • wobbling like
  • as angry as
  • as scary as
  • as loud as
  • nag like a
  • prayerful as
  • sweet as
  • bright as
  • smooth as
  • happy as
  • as strange as
  • run like a
  • drive like a
  • kick like a
  • as big as



Write five images, each with a different sensory appeal, inspired by a cliché. 

Create more original and detailed turns of phrase that offer a mood or impression that captures the spirit of the cliché, but not its language or its familiarity. For example:

“delicate as eggshell”

Think of how the senses can be evoked delicately:
[sight] fog filigreed with a sumac’s shadowy branches;
[touch] a boy’s ribcage, like bisque hands outspread beneath his skin;
[taste] the wispy sweet of that first kiss, when the tiramisu is finished;
[smell] the day smelled of wheatgrass and exhaustion;
[sound] the throttled bleating of lamb, like an infant’s breathy giggle.

Last Updated: 01/23/2016


Karl J. Sherlock
Associate Professor, English
Office Hours: M-Th 4-5:30
Phone: 619-644-7871

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