Writing advice from Jane Austen — really

Oh, here’s a neat post by Sherwood Smith about Jane Austen’s advice to those of her relatives (several, evidently) who were also writers. It was a highly literary family, I gather, and a smallish handful of letters back and forth from Jane survive.

Jane on language in a critique letter to her niece Anna, on her first novel-in-progress:

…Devereux Forester’s being ruined by his Vanity is extremely good; but I wish you would not let him plunge into a ‘Vortex of Dissipation.’ I do not object to the Thing, but I cannot bear the expression—it is such thorough novel slang—and so old, that I dare say Adam met with it in the first novel he opened.

And so on. A Votex of Dissipation, really? I’m pretty sure I have never encountered the term personally, but at the time apparently it was a terrible cliché.

Here is a list, from Writer’s Digest, of 12 clichés that may be among the most common today:

1. Avoid it like the plague
2. Dead as a doornail
3. Take the tiger by the tail
4. Low hanging fruit
5. If only walls could talk
6. The pot calling the kettle black
7. Think outside the box
8. Thick as thieves
9. But at the end of the day
10. Plenty of fish in the sea
11. Every dog has its day
12. Like a kid in a candy store

Let me see. Actually I think it’s not quite correct to call “The pot calling the kettle black” a cliché. It is an aphorism. I think there’s a very substantial difference between picking the right pithy aphorism and falling into a lazy cliché.

The rest of them strike me as lazy clichés, though, I agree.

Anyway, good post. Austen certainly seems just as sharp in her personal letters as in her novels.

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4 thoughts on “Writing advice from Jane Austen — really”

  1. I’d consider most of those to be so well known and so much used, they belong in the categories of proverbs and sayings, fixed combinations of words used to express a fixed concept.
    What is the difference, and where does the line get drawn between cliches and fixed sayings in English?

  2. I think an aphorism pithily expresses a truth: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. They’re perfectly appropriate in novels or blog posts or any kind of writing, and they’re so well known that you don’t need to give the whole aphorism. When designing review work for our algebra students to do over the summer so they are adequately prepared for their upcoming classes next semester, I bet I said to someone, “But who knows if anyone will actually put the time into review? You know, you can lead a horse to water . . .”

    A cliché, on the other hand, is simply a turn a phrase that is seen almost entirely in lazy writing. You stick “but at the end of the day” into a mission statement or report because it’s an expected buzzword, not because you mean anything in particular by it. You put “dead as a doornail” into a murder mystery because you haven’t realized it’s utterly trite. Neither captures any kind of truth about the human condition.

  3. Or because you believe that abandoning it will lead to national ruin!

    “I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
    –Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol” (1843)

  4. Oh, nice bit from Dickens! I don’t think I’ve ever actually read “A Christmas Carol” — just seen various adaptations — and now I think maybe I should.

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