The flickering log fire
I read that Ian McEwan asks early readers of his drafts to mark clichés with the acronym FLL (short for ‘the flickering log fire’). I thought of that recently when I was reading a novel by an otherwise fine writer and was brought up short by a reference to ‘nerveless fingers.’ Once was bad enough, but I was even more surprised to come across those nerveless fingers again a few pages later.
Even Homer nods. Every writer has moments of inattention, moments when they are on autopilot. In the heat of composition they reach for something to express their meaning, and what pops into their head is – ‘nerveless fingers.’ I don’t hold it against this writer – we all do it and I am as guilty as anyone. The cliché is a symptom of lazy thinking, and hopefully is replaced by something better on the next trawl through. Sometimes though the writer simply remains blind to the cliché, doesn’t even recognise it as one. And that is what editors are for. I have been lucky with mine, who have saved me from some howlers – that’s not to say that none have still slipped through the net – but maybe it is true that generally speaking editors don’t edit as much as they used to do. A pity.