How to banish cliches from your students’ creative writing

One English teacher shares a tried-and-tested approach that stops pupils relying on the same tired metaphors and similes in every piece of writing

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One of the most disenchanting moments when teaching creative writing must be coming across “he ran as fast as a cheetah” in a piece of writing. You know you have taught them appropriate comparisons; you know you have shown them examples from literary geniuses… so why is that blinking cheetah rearing its spotted head again?

The problem of stock similes and metaphors littering pupils’ writing is the bane of many an English teacher’s life. What can you do about it when it feels like you have already tried everything?

A technique I have used is "exploding" metaphors and similes. This forces students to consider their comparisons more carefully, and consequently makes them write with more detail. It can also lead them to consider the writer’s craft more carefully in general. And when they think like writers, it will always help their analysis.

How to ‘explode’ a metaphor

The technique works by taking a metaphor or simile and expanding it to give more detail. Here is an example:

Bang: The tension in the room twisted like a knot.

Bang boom: The tension in the room twisted like a knot. Apprehension and anxiety were pulling and tugging in opposite directions.

Bang boom ka-boom: The tension in the room twisted like a knot. Apprehension and anxiety were pulling and tugging in opposite directions. Just as it started to become unbearable and the bond began to fray, the door opened.

I would begin by sharing an extract from a text that contains this technique, and then use this as a way into a discussion about what works, why it is effective and what we like about it. Then I would use an example like the above to break down how the different elements fit together.

I would discuss the choices that the writer has made. For example, we might consider  “twisted like a knot” versus “twisted like a tree root”. “Knot” conveys the idea that things are complicated and restrictive, while “tree root” is more obscure and doesn’t suggest movement – because it is more static, the tension isn’t growing.

From here, we would look at a few examples and each "part" of the explosion. Each sentence or clause furthers the comparison, and explains why the two things are similar.

Looking at very specific examples helps to scaffold pupils’ own descriptions and focuses their writing on the creation of atmosphere. You can then either get pupils to revisit their original piece and use this as part of their editing process or set them off on a new creative-writing task.

As with any writing skill, there is going to be the usual initial struggles. Sharing lots of good examples and modelling the thinking process yourself will assist students with their own self-editing. Leaving the original along with the edited version up on the board can be a powerful reminder to students who are prone to rush through their writing. Everything should be about crafting the piece, not just sprinting to the end of the page...as fast as a cheetah.

Grainne Hallahan has been teaching English in Essex for 10 years. She is part of the #TeamEnglish Twitter group

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