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Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Have you ever noticed how some people can describe a simple everyday occurrence and make it sound hilarious or tragic or just plain interesting, while another person can tell the same story and have you snoring with boredom in an instant? If the language you use is vivid and fresh even a familiar event or idea can come to life but if it’s trite, overused, and predictable–in other words, if it’s filled with clichés–even the most exciting story can become dull.
People often speak in clichés.
It’s an easy form of shorthand that doesn’t require much thought and ensures that everyone knows what you mean.  For example, here’s a simple description of a common experience that’s filled with overused phrases. (They’re underlined.)
“I guess I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning; I just couldn’t seem to get in gear. I took the bus to work. It was so crowded people were packed like sardines. I was late getting to the office and the boss was hopping mad. The day seemed to drag on and on. I thought five o’clock would never come!”
While this paragraph gives you an idea of what the speaker’s day was like, it doesn’t make you feel the boredom and frustration. Familiar phrases such as “packed like sardines,” “hopping mad” and “seemed to drag on and on” have been so overused that they’ve lost their emotional impact. Listeners no longer picture the images or notice the comparisons.
Avoid clichés and still be universal.
A universal lyric is one that reaches out to a lot of people.  Sometimes songwriters think that writing a universal lyric means they have to use a lot of generic language, dumb down their lyric, or write what people expect to hear. That’s not the case at all. Generic, predictable lines just waste space because listeners don’t really hear them. Here are four ways you can get rid of overused, predictable phrases in your lyrics.
1. Use a fresh or unexpected comparison: Comparisons are a great way to add energy to a description. there was a time when “packed like sardines” was vivid, fresh, and funny. Listeners really pictured it when they heard it and it made them react. Eventually, so many people liked it and used it that the idea became stale and listeners stopped reacting.
You can create new comparisons that associate one idea with another in ways listeners haven’t heard before. For instance, you could express exhaustion by saying, “I felt like a balloon that was losing air. Floating an inch off the ground, being kicked around.” Or describe a crowded bus: “People were wedged together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.”
2. Give it a character: When you give human characteristics to an inanimate object, it literally brings it to life for listeners. Try personifying an object in your story: “Some days are criminal. They ought to be locked up.” Of course days are not criminals and no one can literally “lock up” a day but listeners are able to understand that this is what the day felt like.
3. Twist a cliché: You can use a cliché if you surprise the listener by creating a different payoff or explain it in a way that offers a new insight. Instead of “the day dragged on and on,” you might try, “the day dragged on and dragged me down.”
4. Change the order of events: Keeping to the logical progression of events is what listeners expect; it’s a cliché story structure. While you don’t want to alter things so much that the story becomes unclear, you could start with the end of the day, with the feeling of exhaustion, then work backwards, showing listeners what led up to it.
To hear good examples of lyrics that express universal ideas while avoiding or reworking clichés, listen to “Cannonball” by Damien Rice, Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire,” and John Mayer’s “Gravity.”
The Cliché Game
Rewrite these clichés using any or all of the four techniques listed above.
– I depend on you; you’re my ace in the hole. 
– You think you’ve got it made, but soon you’ll change your tune. 
– We fight like cats and dogs but things work out in the end. 
– The more I learn about you, the less I know. 
– I’ve got to get my feelings out; it’s now or never.
You can keep on playing. Find more clichés online at web sites like http://www.clichesite.com. Practice rewriting them to get in the habit and exercise your creative muscle. Keep a list of your rewritten lines and refer to it next time you’re looking for a song title or idea. Use one of your rewritten clichés as the basis for a song lyric.
Copyright 2010 Robin Frederick. Based on the book “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting: 126 Proven Techniques for Writing Songs That Sell” available at Amazon.com.