Writer’s Desk: Death to Cliches

Avoid using this kind of image to illustrate your piece about Africa.

Cliches are irresistible to most people, and particularly writers. Why? They’re easy, people know what you mean, there’s millions of them for the taking.

The downsides, of course, are legion. Lazy writing, audience pandering, a lack of originality.

There is also the very real chance that you can do a great disservice to the subject. Rather than attempting to understand something new, many writers fall back on the familiar. Take Bivyavanga Wainaina’s brilliantly satiric article from a few years back in Granta. In “How to Write About Africa,” he includes a mock list of all the things writers should (not) include when covering that frequently ignored and usually misunderstood place:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular…

When venturing into an area you know little about, read and study all you can. Talk to anyone who will listen to you. But see it all with new eyes. Bring a fresh perspective. We don’t become writers simply to rewrite what others have done.

And please: Never use the phrase “Dark Continent.” Just don’t.


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