Travel writing is a genre already riddled with clichés, but Paris is in a class of its own for inspiring a never-ending literary parade of tired descriptions, hackneyed imagery, and nauseating hyperbole. And frankly, the City of Light deserves better.
I always have a large stack of books about Paris in my “to read” pile, about half of them ones I’ve purchased and half of them given to me by friends, clients or book publicists hoping I’ll write a positive review. The ones I love are the ones I recommend here. But at least half of them are put in the “donate” pile by my door. I’m a writer myself, so I don’t want to write bad reviews, but I just can’t bring myself to do anyone — even friends — a “favor” by recommending a book that reads like a bad first draft. And since I really don’t have time to read all of the books I want to read, it’s easier to just say, “Sorry, no time for more books this year!”
One book in particular was so cliché-ridden, I just couldn’t pay attention to the actual story because the writer’s writing was getting in the way. I met with Bryan Pirolli to go over the materials for our Travel Writing Workshop and I read a few paragraphs of the book in question to get his opinion. “Is it just a matter of taste? Or do we agree this is bad travel writing?” He cringed and gave it two thumbs down. I discreetly checked with a few other travel writers and editors I know, and for good measure re-read every good article I had ever bookmarked about “Travel Writing Mistakes to Avoid” to make sure I wasn’t just being picky.
Clichéd writing is bad writing because it demonstrates a total lack of creativity.
Worse, meaningless words suck the vitality out of your story. And nothing alienates readers – or destroys your credibility – faster than boring, overused travel prose. If that’s not enough of a challenge for would-be writers to overcome, consider this: the very idea of writing about Paris has become such a cliché in itself it wouldn’t be surprising to find the stereotypical image of a “Writer in a Left Bank Café” beneath the urban dictionary phrase: “Been there, done that.”
Don’t let that stop you from writing your own Paris story.
Few writers will ever join the ranks of legends like Ernest Hemingway, Janet Flanner, David Sedaris or Mavis Gallant, but anyone can rise above the sea of clueless amateurs by simply avoiding clichés, exaggerations, and worn-out phrases “like the plague”.Notice how much better that last sentence reads once you remove the cliché tacked onto the end? These writing crutches rarely add anything to our story but bloated, empty words. Admittedly, it’s hard to get past reflexes and habits. Every writer lets a few clichés slip by (myself included), but make them an exception to the rule. Don’t let them dominate your writing or your own true voice will never emerge.
So how do you spot the worst offenders?
There are three types: the standard cringe-worthy clichés (I dare you to write a Paris story without the phrase “a certain je ne sais quoi”), adjectives lacking concrete meaning (like cozy, hip, charming), and words that are simply misused (there’s only one Mecca, and it isn’t in Paris). Start by ripping out those easy adjectives, the lazy modifiers that say nothing. You want to write about a morning spent at the “colorful market”? Have you ever seen a market devoid of color? What exactly is colorful that sticks out, what’s unique? If all French baguettes are “crusty” – and unless something has gone terribly wrong, they always are – then the modifier is unnecessary baggage. Rip it out. Save your words to show readers what you really mean. If you tell us a room is “cozy”, all we have is your word for it. But if you tell us there’s a fireplace in the corner, books on the night table, and a purring cat, then we know it’s cozy.
Another bad habit travel writers have is hijacking words that belong elsewhere.
Presumably to liven up the text. The Merriam-Webster dictionary may backup your claim that Paris is a “Mecca for luxury shoppers,” but most travel editors would prefer you save it for referring to the holiest city of Islam. The only “nuggets” you should be unearthing are gold (or chicken if you’re at McDonald’s). Ditto with “hidden gems,” unless you’re in a mine or Aladdin’s cave. Stick to fabrics when using “plush,” birds whenever something is “perched,” and donuts when daring to write “jam-packed”. A dam or a water balloon might be “bursting,” and a hotel PR flack might “boast,” but you’ll get silently dismissed as a wannabe if you dare to write: “Bursting with authentic Parisian charm, the Latin Quarter boasts some of the oldest cafés in town.”
Just because you see other writers using these words doesn’t mean you should, too.
Especially if those writers use other fancy and outdated words that no one actually says in regular speech, like “galore,” “beckon,” “atop,” “eatery,” “nestled,” or “bustling”. If you said words like this out loud to your friends you’d realize they make you sound like a pompous ninny. If you want to establish intimacy and trust with your reader, use your own words, not supposed “professional writer” words.
Once you’ve written your first draft, take off your writer’s hat and put on the editor’s hat (never attempt to write while wearing both or you’ll go mad). Then be brutal. Go after hyperbolic words such as “stunning,” “incredible,” “awesome” and “breathtaking,” as well as any superlatives like “best” (unless you’re being intentionally subjective) or “largest” (unless you can factually verify it). Exclamation points are more powerful than you realize, so use them sparingly outside of dialogue – if at all!
No matter how things are going, all writers have days when they feel stuck in a stream of clichés, writing whole pages of listless text with no depth. Writing the Bones author Natalie Goldberg recommends an almost fool-proof method for taking it to a deeper place: anytime you catch yourself writing uninspired or shallow fluff, stop; take a deep breath, and write, “What I really mean to say is…” You’ll find what follows to be more honest, more authentic.
Try writing a description of a beautiful Parisian setting (a park, café, hotel, boutique, or restaurant) without using any of these words below (and let me know if you think there are more words that should be added to the list!)
- hidden gem
- shore up
- to die for
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