Worse Than a Cliché

Welcome to the last Friday of the month with contributing word wizardess Tiffany Lawson Inman. We look forward to Tiffany’s magic to transform mundane writing to the realms of marvelous. And she’s donating a three-page edit to a very lucky reader. Respond to her challenge to be entered in the drawing.

by Tiffany Lawson Inman

A. “What is worse than a cliché?” Tiffany asked, with a look of horror.

B. “What is worse than a cliché?” Tiffany’s voice cracked.  Her mouth quivered, pinched, and her eyes flashed wide as if I had tried to force feed her eyeball soup from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

  • Which one has more power?
  • Which one gave you a better picture of the horror filled facial expression?
  • Which one showed voice?
  • Which one will you remember when you put down the book?

The correct and totally-obvious-answer is, B.

“With a” phrases are equal to, or, yes – worse than a cliché. Think of all the vocal cues, body language, voice, unique style, and action you are holding back from your readers.

EEK!

Within all of the pre-pubbed manuscripts I have edited or critiqued, the ratio of “with a” phrases to manuscript pages was approximately 600 “with a” phrases to 275 manuscript pages.

Gulp.

Note: a few of the phrases included are like, “She hit the snake with a hammer.”  Hmmm…maybe 15 percent of them are friendly uses of the word combo,”with a.”  That leaves 515 unfriendly uses of “with a.”

515 opportunities to make yourselves better writers.

From the handful of pubbed books I looked at, the ratio was more like, 100 with a’s to 350 pages. Much better, right? In fact, these examples were all yanked from pubbed books. (She walked away with a down-turned lip) But that does not give you all the green flag to write a million and two of these into your manuscript!  (With a gleam in her eyes, she stared me down.)

  • …with a glance over my shoulder.
  • …with a quirky smile.
  • …with a hint of distain.
  • …with a sad story in her eyes.
  • …with a roar.
  • …with a howl.
  • …with a dull ache.
  • …with a confused expression.
  • …with a gap-toothed grin.
  • …with a soft laugh.
  • …with a sigh.
  • …with an odd expression.
  • …with a smirk.
  • …with a frown.
  • …with a curtsy.
  • …with a thud.
  • …with a crunch.
  • …with a boom.
  • …with a flare.
  • …with a critical eye.
  • …with a wave.
  • …with a growl.
  • …with a smack.
  • …with a flick of her wrist.
  • …with a cough.
  • …with a sense of purpose.
  • …with a confidence.
  • …with a sickening crunch.

Do they look familiar?  How many do you have?  Use the FIND search in Word and see for yourselves.  Type in: with a

            It’s easy, I promise it won’t hurt. (I called to the writers with a hint of sugar in my tone.)

            Do you need to sit down? Breathe!

Now highlight them.

My challenge for you.  Go in and rewrite.  Get yourself down to between 50 and 100 “with a” phrases in your entire manuscript. Both friendly and unfriendly included in your final count.

Use them sparingly, if at all. And the ones you choose to keep, push yourselves to write them fresh. Kick the basic, plain, unadorned, below average, routine “with a” phrases to the curb.

Another challenge for you: In the comment section below, post a 20-40 word section of your manuscript that includes a “with a” phrase and below it, a fantabulous rewrite.  The rewrite can be more than 40 words.

The author with the best rebirth of a “with a” phrase will get a 3 page edit from me! 

(I flourished the last line of the blog with a virtual-high-kick.) 

Thank you very much for joining me for the last Friday of the month here on WITS! I’ll be checking back throughout the weekend to answer any questions and back on Sunday night to announce the WINNER!

Workshops taught by Tiffany Lawson Inman:

**These courses will be taught at least twice a year. You won’t miss out!**

Follow me on twitter @NakedEditor to see what’s happening and when. New workshops taught every month at Lawson Writer’s Academy !

Want to learn from me in person?  I will be presenting a workshop at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this year. Registration is open!

You can find Tiffany at her website , info-packed-blogs starting back up in late summer 2012.

Tiffany Lawson Inman (NakedEditor) claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. Here, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. She teaches for Lawson Writer’s Academy and presents hands-on-action workshops. As a freelance editor, she provides story analysis and editing services.

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65 Responses to Worse Than a Cliché

  1. Gene Lempp says:

    …with a hint of concern he said: This is a great post! Fun voice, wizardess Tiffany. I’ve never taken a look at this particular item but somehow I have this feeling my number will start out higher than I’d like. Thanks for the tip, with “a”ppreciation.

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Oh Tiffany, I never heard anyone call out the ‘with a’ problem, but it’s one that bugs me. I read your blog, cheering. Almost to the end, I had this horrible feeling. . . had to run and check one of my completed novels. Whew, maybe two in the whole thing. I fixed them, pronto. Thanks for pointing out this under-pointed-out (hey, I can make up words – I’m a writer) thing!

  3. ‘With a’ phrasing (up until now) hasn’t bother me. IMHO, it’s one of those things that needs to be taken in context – looking at the whole line, the cadence and the pace of the scene (as in: does it help the line read faster). But I will run a search from now on and look at them with a more critical eye.

    I like fresh descriptions, but not when they’re so wordy they become a speed bump. Sometimes common phrasing works. If the scene interesting and the cadence is smooth, I’ll blow right past it without noticing.

    • Melissa,

      Ah yest, then my challenge for you is to work on those wordy descriptions and make them have unique cadence with more power and fresh-ER writing! Say NO to a lot of that common phrasing and then your readers will have an uncommon read.

      Set yourself apart!

      She said, with an overzealus punch of pep for something written at 6am. Ok, some of them work. I just don’t want to see this phrasing on eeeevvvveeerrrrryyyy page. :)

  4. Wow, Tiffany…you can learn something new every day! I know those ‘with a’ phrases seemed tedious but figured it was just me. I found 139 in a 97K manuscript (not horrible, but alarming) and am working my way through them. Since I love a challenge, here’s one of my rewrites (but it’s only eight a.m. and I have more to do!). Great post! Sharon
    Original:
    “What if we hadn’t met before tonight and this was our first time?” CJ sat upright and studied her with a curious, eager expression. “Say our friends introduced us.”

    Rewrite:
    CJ bolted upright. “What if we hadn’t met before tonight and this was our first time?” His expression glowed, like he’d just discovered a hundred dollar bill in his pocket after spending his last dime. “Say our friends introduced us.”

    • Hot doggity our first entry! You, my dear, have some writer gusto for sure!

      Thank you, Sharon, for turning your brain on before 8am for this post :)

      Check back at the end of each day this weekend I’ll be posting feedback on your rewrite along with other entries. Gosh I hope there are more brave souls out there today!

      • Thanks, Tiffany! Some of my gusto developed from another Lawson’s writing class :-). Your tip is one I’ve never heard before but, holy cow…I wonder why not! Makes a huge difference in reading flow. I realized, while making some edits, use of the phrase gives me the easy way out of shooting for better description. Love when the brain works. Enjoy the weekend!

  5. Tiffany, I started with 64 in a 343 page MS. It also included some that said … with another or with all and adjusted those as well. I continued searching and IRRADICATED every single one that used “with a” i.e. with a devlish grin . It was fun, revealing and I came up with much better ways to say something “with a” grin or a frown.

    It was almost as revealing as the search for the AS of it all :)

    • Gadzoooks! It’s only 6am and you, Florence, are ROCKING your with a’s.

      I am proud.

      Thanks for popping over today! Do you have a transformation to show us? The author with the best rebirth of a “with a” phrase will get a 3 page edit from me! :)

      No pressure …….

  6. Sandy says:

    Thanks for the writing tip. It’s already working…
    Moisture welled in his eyes. “Hell. I don’t understand it either.” With a hand the size of a dinner plate, he squeezed my shoulder.
    Moisture welled in his eyes. “Hell. I don’t understand it either.” His burly hand squeezed my shoulder and pulled me in tight.

  7. Ok, oh wise-and-wonderful Naked Editor one. I searched the first fifty of my WIP — the only bit fully Margie-ized and Tiffany-fied. I found 16 in those 50 pages.

    All but two involve non-body-language: His day dictated whether hers ended with a bust or a bang; …snatched two wands from a new kid with a triangle of sandwich protruding from his mouth…; Looks like Victoria isn’t the only one with a secret.

    Advice on whether or not those are acceptable? Free lesson on how to better write the action/ sans the words?

    I am too blown away by the power of Sharon Struth’s rewrite to strut fixes for my two in public.

    p.s. Mwaaaah! It’s so good to hear your voice again.

    • Gee, thanks for the early morning boost to my confidence, Gloria! (boy did I need it).
      You should post yours…I’m sure they’re great!

    • What the, I replied to you this morning, not seeing it.

      Hmmmm…. looks like you are using some of your with a’s in the writing you are using to show voice and your cute writing. I like your bust or bang – keep it! The kid with a triangle of food – is a friendly with a. It works unless there are millions around it. :)

      And lastly, Victoria’s secret…I’ve seen it, or something very similar in a few books and movies and maybe even a tv show. It’s over used. Push this a unique level I know your writing can be.

      Lets see a rewrite! You too, can strut.

      • Game on! I posted a rewrite. Aaaaaaand, it led to an opportunity to back-load.

        I’m weeping over Victoria’s secret. It’s hero Jake who retrieves the silicone bag and his line when he tosses it to Protag Molly. Does than earn any reprieves? No? RATS!

  8. Mary Roya says:

    Geez Louise, will I ever get this down. Don’t start a sentence with ‘ing’, don’t have to many words with ‘ly’ and now I have to watch ‘with a’…..

    “Being outside invigorates her with the heat from the concrete side walk and the coolness of the night.”

    Re-write:

    Being outside invigorates her body and mind, the radiant warmth flowing up through her boots walking on the concrete sidewalk. The coolness of the summer night touching her face and the silence in the surrounding shadowy downtown buildings stills her racing mind.

    • Mary, you have truly brought it today! Nice work.

      How did it feel? I know lots to think about and gosh, so many people have this type of common writing in their published novels. Well, I aim to bring the level of writing up up up! :) Thanks for joining me.

      • Mary Roya says:

        Tiffany, I am excited about learning this new tip. I liked how the emotion and feeling projected in my story more intensely. I shared this link with some of my other writing friends. Thank you!

  9. susannah says:

    Awesome, as always! Love ur insightful hints. S

  10. -uses Ctrl+F on first 54 pages-

    Twenty-five instances. I’ll take one paragraph that got stuck with two:

    Finn released the psychic orb prematurely. Instead of striking the Phobia with a ferocity, it glided toward it with a decent and lagging speed. The bear strike it out of the air as if it was a dodge ball.

    That’s before. Now I’ll do a quick re-write:


    Finn released the orb prematurely. Instead of charging the Phobia, it glided and bobbed. The bear slammed it into the ground, and stomped it into purple pulp. The Phobia’s foot fizzled.

    There! And with seven words to spare!

    By the way, I found this sentence during the search, which doesn’t exactly fit the problem you’re pointing out, but still has some minor problems:


    Just then, Amy came by with a stack of papers within her hands.

    Now, if I make tweaks…


    Just then, Amy came by carrying a stack of papers.

    By the way, you got me to do minor work on my WIP, which I had trouble revising. It’s only a little work, but it’s work.

    • Oh wow, a line with TWO with a’s.

      I’m so happy I got you to get your hands dirty in there. Keep at it!

      I know, revising sucks.Writers are so close to their work, it’s hard to see these minor/major issues that have BIG effect on getting published or winning over your readers with stellar writing. But it has to happen sometime, right?

      If you go through each one you will probably see other places you can tweak and strengthen.

      Hope to see you next month – more tips to help writers :)

  11. Lorraine E. Castro says:

    This has been the single most helpful advice to date. I was appalled at how often I used “with a” in my novel and immediately exchanged that phrase for more interesting, descriptive wording. There were about 20 instances in 280 pages, all sounding reductive and cliche once I read your post. Thank you so much!!!

    • Lorraine, you are so welcome! Did you have one in there to share with us? I’d love to have another entry to the contest :)

      • Lorraine E. Castro says:

        Too embarrassing once I found them. But I can tell you another cliche overused is “and then”. There were lots of those too.

        Is it as dreadful when used at the beginning of a sentence, like “With a short skip, she turned running the rest of the way home.” or is it just obnoxious when used like ” He nodded his agreement, with a sad smile and downcast look”?

  12. Wow! I was pleasantly surprised. I’m doing something right, LOL. I actually had very few instances of “with a” in my finished ms and my current wip. But this was a great post because now I’ll be more mindful of its use. Thanks!

  13. Sharla Rae says:

    Adding “with a” to my “Repeat Offender” list! Who’d of thought it. Now I have to go check it out. I’m always preaching stronger verbs and I think that’s the answer to “with a s” too. :)

  14. Here they are:
    Before: Four hours later, she sat with a book, her concentration broken by the sound of her land line.
    After: Four hours later, she sat reading, her concentratin broken by the sound of her land line.

    Before: From the second floor hall a circular staircase ended on a landing “with a” deep arched dormer and a locked door, behind which “was a” sitting room, walk-in closet and office.

    After: From the second floor hall a circular staircase ended at a deep arched dormer and a locked door, behind which were her sitting room, walk-in closet and office.

    I was out swimming and at my local writer’s group until now. Saw your comment and left those for you, Tiffany. One of the many things I am learning in Margie’s Deep Editing Course is to write cleaner. Economy of words leaves us white space, which leaves us with a better opportunity to say what is important. Gotta love this stuff !! I am also falling in love with pink :)

    • Well alright! Thanks Florence. A swimming and writing day – sounds fun!

      I’m a big fan of writing clean too. And my biggest thing is writing unique to your story, characters, and action. I’m tired of reading the same book over and over again. Ya know?

      Three cheers for you and other writers that are standing up to battle the bland!

      Pink is good :)

  15. Janie Emaus says:

    Great advice. I don’t have any examples but this was a great blog. I have to go check my WIP when I get home tonight.

  16. Great post! I intended to do a search when I got home, but today I happened to be revising one scene on my hard-copy and came across one and was like, ‘aha!’.

    before:
    He bowed over her hand with a puzzled look.

    after:
    He bowed over her hand looking at her, his adorable forehead creased, as if she’d just said she was going to perform the hokey-pokey on the top of the table.

    Interestingly, when I did the revision, it made me see that I had no reaction on the part of the heroine to this puzzled look, but when I rewrote it, it was glaringly obvious that a reaction was needed.

    Okay, just did a search and I had 65 (now 64) instances out of 337 pages. Not bad…

    • Hooooray for “aha” moments!

      Absolutely proud that you found a place for a reaction. I’m a big fan of Dwight Swain’s motivation reaction units. If you do this – you will have an amazing flow of true action, dramatic action.

      Thank you for workin hard today! Come back on Sunday night to see if you are a winner :)

  17. Not that I think this, but a couple of people at the writer’s forum I linked this to thought that Example B at the beginning is overloaded and a little too much.

    • LOL, well I was trying to show extreme examples. I know every line on the page can’t have this much going on.

      Better an @$$hole than a chicken$hit as my Tony Award winning acting coach used to say. As in, better to give it more and pull back, than to barely put any effort into it and have it read bland, flat, and unimaginative.

      Thanks for linking to your writer’s forum.

  18. girldrinkdrunk says:

    Tiffany,
    Thank you very much for your advice. So many crutches, so little time to be rid of them!

    First: This was not a pissing contest I could win. With a cross between a chuckle and snort Talbott Cottle Coles turned on his heel and walked to the limo.

    Repair: This was not a pissing contest I could win. And he knew it. Talbott Cottle Coles gave a triumphant snort, turned on his heel and walked to the limo.

  19. I thought, “I don’t do that.” Uh, well, I checked the new book and found 30 infractions. Granted 12 were the “with a hammer” variety, but even that can be improved. Guess what I’m doing tomorrow?
    Thanks for pointing the neon arrow this direction, Tiffany!
    -Fae

  20. Arisa says:

    You just slammed a hammer on my biggest problem! Though maybe it’s preference a little bit.
    I like the A option a lot better haha. To me B is just dreading on and on and I’d rather read the answer to the question. But that’s just me.
    I try to avoid the whole “with a”, but I’m very bad at coming up with good alternatives.
    More practice is needed!

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  22. Richard Snow says:

    One way around this is to put the body language, or the character’s awareness of her own bodily sensations first. Then describe the action:
    “She buried her face in her hands, then shook her head and breathed in deeply. Just focus on the task right now, she told herself. What do I need to do? She grabbed a black travel bag from the bottom of the cupboard, tossed it onto the bed and threw in some basic underwear and some slacks.”
    That way you don’t need a “with a trembling hand,” or “with her breath heaving.” Also putting the body language or the internal bodily sensation first you’ve set the emotional tone before you describe the action.
    Cheers -RS

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  24. My favorite ”with a” phrase is ”with a jerk”, as in ”She awoke with a jerk\” The reader thinks she’s sleeping with a guy who\’s a jerk. ;) I would write, ”She leapt out of the bed, as if her body was moving one step ahead of her mind.”

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  26. Julie Glover says:

    So I typed into Scrivener “with a” for my current WIP, and the first instance that came up was “with alcohol.” True story. LOL.

    This suggestion is awesome. I found a lot of “with a sigh,” “with a shrug,” and “with a smile” in my manuscript. I have highlighted accordingly!

    Here’s the challenge: “Before he steps out onto the porch, Hunter turns back with a pleading look, but Rachel maintains her stone-cold posture.” Rewrite: “Before he steps onto the porch, Hunter turns back. He takes a breath as if to speak, but hesitates as Rachel assumes the harsh expression of a gargoyle and emits a similar warning. No amount of pleading will make her change her mind.”

  27. I never thought to check for this. Thanks for the tip! Here’s my try:

    Before: She spit each word at him with a level of anger he hadn’t expected, especially given this once in a lifetime bout of honesty.

    After: She had drawn back like a Rattler, ready to attack, and then fired with spitting accuracy. Given this once in a lifetime bout of honesty, he didn’t see it coming.

  28. Marcia says:

    Love this! Only found one instance in my 12 pages of my book.
    “He was a bird of a man with a beaked nose and the rheumy eyes of a mole, came to my room in only his smoking jacket, his spindly legs hanging out of it so he nearly resembled a crane .”

    Rewrite:
    Professor Mallory, a beak-nosed, rheumy-eyed, bird of a man, came to my room in nothing but his smoking jacket, his spindly legs hanging out of it so he nearly resembled a crane.”

  29. Jenny Hansen says:

    Holy cowbell! Look at all these great examples! I’m so proud of all our WITS peeps. :-)

  30. The words “suddenly” and “just” are two that I avoid “like the plague” as well!

  31. Just in case “going all weekend” includes Sunday evening:

    Before:

    Molly turned to see Audra stare at her with a look that morphed from wide-eyed, slack-jawed surprise into squinty-eyed, thin-lipped anger faster than Molly could have thwacked her head on the refrigerator again.

    After:

    Molly turned and watched Audra’s face morph from wide-eyed, slack-jawed surprise into squinty-eyed, thin-lipped anger faster than Molly could have executed another head-to-refrigerator thwack.

    • YIKES! Read aloud for cadence.

      Molly turned and watched Audra’s face morph from wide-eyed, slack-jawed surprise into squinty-eyed, thin-lipped anger faster than Molly could execute another head-to-fridge thwack.

  32. C. K. Crouch says:

    Hi Tiffany I am late here but I had a question I only have 31 but I am sure if I go through I can “fix” them. Must be Margie’s classes seeping into the brain cells when I thought I didn’t catch it all. Thanks for a great post

  33. C. K. Crouch says:

    BEFORE:
    “No, not from there. Some,” she closed her eye, inhaled with a rattle like she was trying to focus. “I think someone was here. It’s all mixed up in my mind. Are you with the police?”
    AFTER:
    “No, not from there, someone,” she closed her eyes, maybe to focus or concentrate he wasn’t sure. When he heard a rattling sound when she tried to breathe deep, he wished he hadn’t pushed the issue. With her bruised ribs, he’d had some before he knew it hurt and if he breathing was ragged then not a good sign.
    Amy opened her eyes. “I think someone was there. It’s all mixed up in my mind. Are you with the police?”
    “Shh it’s okay, not really I’m just a fellow officer from next door who came to see what happened. If you’ll wait a bit I’m going to see if the police and medics are on their way up here.

    I’m not sure if this is any better or not. It is way to late to be pushing the thought processes around I did another search and this time it found 47 lol. I have no idea what I did but thanks for the post and I will keep at it.

    • Hey, Angela! I was checking back to see if they had yet made The Big Announcement, too.

      Three pages of review by Naked Editor? The prospect brings on both a shudder and a squee.

      • Hi Gloria and Angela,
        We’re working on it. Tiffany and Margie got side-tracked with the Colorado wildfire so near their homes. (Both made it through okay, but it got close!) We’ll have the announcements for both giveaways as soon as we know. Thanks for checking.
        -Fae

  34. ladyardour says:

    I love this post. Great advice. :)

    Lady Ardour

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  36. Dave Farmer says:

    Found this post through Marcy Kennedy on G+ and after searching through my current writing project I found 2 “with a…” which I’m very proud of. Thanks for sharing this, another thing to keep an eye on!

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