Sunday, February 6, 2011

Turning a Phrase

In fiction we hear that term a lot... "Wow, that author really knows how to turn a phrase."

You probably think, ya for them!

But unless you are getting spontaneous compliments about how you turned a phrase well, you probably... um... you know... aren't turning them well!

For any new writers out there wondering what in the heck I am talking about, here's the dictionary definition...

A sequence of words intended to have meaning.
a. A characteristic way or mode of expression.
b. A brief, apt, and cogent expression.

Okay, ya, that didn't help me out either. In my world "Turning a phrase" is when you take a fairly routine notion such as folding laundry and find a way to say it so much cooler.

Ex: Elizabeth sighed as she folded yet another towel.

Not a bad sentence. We've got sighed in there so we know her emotional state and the 'yet' adds to our characterization of Elizabeth.

However, that is not turning a phrase, I simply wrote the sentence well.

The towel was her nemesis. The hamper... her Everest.

Is that the best turned phrase I have ever written, no (give me a break , it's 5 in the morning)! But it does show you the basics of what I am talking about.

Usually turning a phrase means taking your point off the nose and flowering it up.

It is when you read something that is not action or dialogue related and think "That was so freaking cool."

I know I am being by far more vague with this blog but that is because we are not talking structure here, we are talking art.

How 'well' you have turned a phrase is completely subjective. Some people may love it. Some people may not.

The point of this blog is to bring your mind to the subject. We have all 'felt' when we needed to turn a phrase.

You wrote something down, but the words just aren't rising to the occasion. You know you could make it cooler somehow, but just don't know how.

That is when you instinctively want to 'turn the phrase.'

So when those moments happen and your fingers stall on the keyboard remember that you want to 'turn' the phrase. That means actively doing something to it.

Look at what you just wrote as a place holder. Now describe in your head all the things you wished you had said. Ramble. Riff. Think far afield. Go for it.

You will usually have 3-5 ideas in there and usually the next to last or last one is the best or closest to the essence of what you wanted to say.

Now re-write the sentence. If you didn't hit it out of the park, no worries. Many times I will come up with the best turn of phrase hours later on my walk or in the bathtub.

Also don't let a 'turn of phrase' stall let it stall your writing for the day. Sure, take a few moments and ponder how you could improve that section, but if nothing comes to you, then move on.

That's what editing is for :-)

All right, that is it for the day.

Your assignment?
Go forth and find some phrases to turn!

And don't forget we will be taking about this subject and answering any questions you have about any aspect of writing craft (which you can leave either here, on my twitter stream @writingnodrama or call in LIVE) on this week's radio show on Saturday at 2pm PST!


  1. That makes total sense. I definitely have much work to do with my WIP when it comes to turning a phrase. You have my mind rolling :-)

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  3. Thank you so much for this article, it has been a huge help!! I'm so glad I stumbled upon the phrase in a book review and Googled it! :D