To be fair, each reader could probably compile a different list of things that make them cringe.

For me, once something in a story bothers me, I can’t unsee it. Sometimes it sticks with me for a long time.

Are you a reader who is bothered by the “Alpha male” stereotype? Or the “helpless female”? Or maybe you’re bothered by children who go off on adventures without telling their parents first? All of these things have frustrated me when they appear, though when a story is written well, and the stereotype is in service of the narrative, it may not be quite as annoying.

However, one thing that always makes me cringe, no matter what the story, are a few very specific cliched narrative phrases.

Share a few examples, you say? I’d be glad to. In no particular order, here are a few of my least favorite narrative phrases:

  • “at hand”: This one is often used to describe a problem or task, as in “…we need to concentrate on the problem at hand.” Ugh. Get rid of it! Just say, “…we need to concentrate on the alien out the window,” or whatever the problem ‘at hand’ is.
  • “but before he could“: Once? Okay, fine. But if things are almost happening and being interrupted a bunch of times throughout a story, the writer needs to think about other ways to create narrative tension. I recently read a very interesting story, but before I could finish it I was interrupted–many, many times–by the phrase ‘but before he could.’
  • “as if he”: Commonly used to get us into the mind of a non-POV character, this one is also okay in moderation. But too many times can really grate on the reader. “She said this as if she knew the minds of all readers. It was as if she wanted to make a point but was laboring over the best way to say it. ‘If only she would move on,’ the reader thought. But she kept going, as if she didn’t know how to stop.”
  • “let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding”: As in, “His deep green eyes bore into hers, locking on to her gaze as if he were drowning. When he finally looked away, she let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding.” Ok, YA fantasy. We get it. Holding a breath that you are unaware of is a way to tell us the character is in deep. Probably, she doesn’t know she’s holding her breath because she’s falling in insta-love with the uber-handsome, possibly dangerous, but super unavailable, probably because of a dark past, nemesis-who-will-turn-out-to-be-the-only-man-who-ever-understood-her. But maybe we could come up with other, more interesting ways to convey this?

As a disclaimer, there is no single right way to write. Some of the most interesting stories are ones that don’t follow any exacting ‘rules of writing,’ instead letting the narrative breathe and giving characters the leeway to take on personalities. And even stories that I’ve loved have sometimes fallen into stereotypes and cliches.

That is to say, even good books can fall into some of these traps, and I do not intend to call out any specific writers. Writing a book is a large undertaking, and I applaud anyone who attempts it — even more so if they finish it and publish. However, there are some triggers that frustrate me as a reader, no matter how good the writer’s intentions.

That being said, if these phrases were completely struck from all future books we would not have lost much. And I would probably cringe less often while reading.

Do you have any cliches or stereotypes that make you cringe every time you read them? Please share in the comments!


Photo of book and magnifying glass by João Silas on


  • When any phrase is repeated too often it feels lazy. You don’t get a catchphrase main character, you are not Steve Urkel.

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