Idioms: Finding Your Feet

Today I want to talk a bit about the use of idioms in writing. You see, I recently read a book that, while good, overused idioms a lot. To me, this made the work feel trite, shallow, and hard to read seriously. That can be a real pitfall, and typically (unless you are writing a very unique story) you don’t want your readers to feel that way about your writing.

idiom (n.): an idiom is any phrase used in writing or speaking that is not taken literally. These are commonly cliche phrases we use in everyday life.

Examples of idioms: raining cats and dogs, chip on the shoulder, rubbed the wrong way. See if you can think of some others.

These phrases are pervasive in our speech and sometimes in writing. We know what they mean because they tend to be so heavily used in daily life. But as I said, this overuse can lead to your work feeling trite if you overuse them.

That said, a properly used idiom can be a powerful tool! Picking one or two for use in a piece, such as “a penny saved is a penny earned” when writing about finances or, in fiction, writing about someone finding a penny or putting money away, can add life to the story. Idioms in themselves can be a form of artistic expression. It’s the overuse that can kill your work, not the selective use.

Besides adding impact to the events in your story or your writing in an article or essay, idioms can add humor into an otherwise dark situation or a place that may seem harsh without such a phrase. It can lighten the mood, if that’s what you want. Gallows humor is what comes to mind for me, places where the situation is dire, but the character employs jokes and uses idioms to keep the situation from feeling too heavy. If you ever read The Martian, you may have come across this idea.

Let’s run through a couple examples to illustrate my points.

#1. As luck would have it, Romy found her watch just in the nick of time. Piece of cake. What she didn’t find, though, was her umbrella, and it was raining cats and dogs outside. But this event only happened once in a blue moon, and she was going to make it on time come hell or high water.

#2. Romy glanced up at the clock on the wall while she dug through the drawer again. Finally, she emerged victorious, watch in hand. Now where was that umbrella? She looked forlornly out the window, watching the rain pelt the glass from the steel gray sky. She would just have to make a run for it. There was no way she was missing this event. It probably wouldn’t be back in town for another five years!

Look at my two passages above. In them, I am describing the same scene, but (and I hope you agree) the second passage is much stronger. The overuse of idioms in the first passage feels childish and unskilled. It isn’t creative. The second passage makes use of some writing tools, such as imagery and showing versus telling. These are things that are lost with the overuse of idioms.

So how about some key things to consider when you want to incorporate idioms into your writing?

1. Aim for impact. Choose a minimal number of idioms that will add the greatest effects to your writing. And make sure you space them out.

2. Know your audience. Choose idioms and timing based on the type of writing you are doing. What you decide to use or not use will vary based on genre, type of work (essay versus short story), and tone.

3. Let other people tell you how it works. And then listen to their input.

4. Avoid cliches. Cliches take the idiom one step further. They tend to be trite, overly obvious, and way too heavily used.

I hope you have found this article helpful. Idioms, when used appropriately, can add impact to your work. But they are one of those devices that must be used with care.

Happy writing (and reading)!

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