Becoming Your Own Editor: Pros and cons of using idioms in your writing
As an editor, I see many things that either “take away” from a story or ruin a scene completely. As always, there are exceptions, but today I’m going to discuss one of the most common things that make me cringe: idioms.
NOTE: See how many idioms you can point out throughout my post. I will use them as I type at the drop of a hat.
Idiom – an expression or phrase unique to a language or culture that is used as a type of jargon and is not meant to be interpreted by the usual rules of grammar.
First, let me clarify that idioms are awesome. I use them all the time, but I also consider which ones I shouldn’t use, too. Consider some pros and cons to idioms that I’ll share, but let’s look at a few commonly used idioms. (On my side of the world.)
When pigs fly – If someone says this, they’re basically telling you it will never happen.
Chase your tail – When you are chasing your tail, you are spending time doing things, but you get very little accomplished.
Fine-tooth comb – If you review something with a fine-tooth comb, you’re reviewing it meticulously and paying attention to every detail.
You get the point. Several of these are well-known, and you may have caught an idiom or two in this blog already (aside from the examples defined above). Idioms such as the ones described above are also known as clichés, which lack creativity and understanding. Keep in mind that, as a writer, creativity is your job, as is an easily understood piece.
1. It’s easily recognized for some readers.
2. It gets an idea across quickly, in some cases, allowing us to use fewer words and sometimes
describe something well. “Seeing him gave me butterflies.”
3. If used in dialogue, it provides a sense of character and cultural reference. “Well, why don’t you get off your high-horse and help me pull this wagon?”
4. It is easier to write than finding other words.
5. They can paint a picture. “Mike was nervous as a fish out of water.”
6. It provides humor. “They broke up again? That couple has more holes than Swiss cheese.”
1. Not all readers will recognize it because they may not be familiar with the idiom. Not everyone knows “kicked the bucket” implies someone died.
2. It’s not always enough description. “That’s the best thing since sliced bread.” Okay, cool, but why? How?
3. It’s cliché. For those who can understand its figurative meaning, it lacks creativity and ends up unimpressive. It’s not always fun to read.
4. It can date your work. Future generations may not know what “heard it on the grapevine” means. If you don’t know, it means you heard rumors.
5. Idioms sometimes translate to another language incorrectly—or are understood differently in various cultures—so the meaning is completely different.
6. If common, the idioms are looked over and ignored, so whatever point you had is overlooked.
Make your work unique
Actions speak louder than words, so some idioms are best left alone. As you can see, they sometimes enhance a paragraph, however, sometimes their claim to fame ends up destroying something that could have been great because, as writers, how can we be known for our creativity if we use someone else’s phrase? (Hint if you’re playing the game: I used at least three idioms in this paragraph alone.)
There are some idioms I suggest throwing away and never looking at again. I have a red forehead every time I see these, and I’ll explain why:
- “Needless to say”: This is used too often, in my opinion, and I’ll ask this question every time: “Why are you saying it if it’s “needless to say”?
- “Against my better judgment”: If you are using this idiom to imply you’re doing something against your will, it should either be obvious or we should understand the struggle because we know your character. This is an easy way out of describing something, and I suggest taking a few minutes to put in the effort. If it’s obvious and your character is doing something they shouldn’t, like stealing a friend’s bike…well, yeah. It is against your better judgment. Why does that have to be stated?
- “It goes without saying”: Then why are you saying it?
- “As you know”: Well, if we know, then why do you need to tell us? This is a great example of an idiom that has an exception. In dialogue, idioms are often used, and this one, along with some others, won’t get lost in translation. People sometimes restate what others know and begin the dialogue with this phrase to streamline their thoughts and inform newcomers of the dated information.
- “Obviously”: Yes, you’re right. It should be obvious, which means you shouldn’t have to say this.
I could go on, but these are some that are common and almost always used as fillers. In other words, they’re typed as the scene is created to fill in the “um” blanks that make you pause in your creative process. If you have these or any other idioms you know of, try removing them and figure out, for yourself, if the particular idiom is necessary.
In dialogue, idioms are fine. Don’t abuse the power, but they’re fine. Humans don’t talk in Old English or without fault, so you don’t really have to chop idioms out wherever they’re found. That’s obvious.
In the end, which idioms you use is up to you. Simply know and understand that some are unnecessary, and others are completely useless. If it adds to a character or scene, use it, but don’t take the easy way out and stick one of those suckers in there because you can’t, or don’t want to, think of anything else. It isn’t impressive, though it can be fun or unique if placed properly.
If and when you use idioms (because everyone does), make sure you are not using something that hasn’t been created yet in the era, time period, etc. that you’re writing in. For example, if I use the idiom in dialogue, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” it’s dangerous to say I placed this in a book set in first-century France. You know, when scrolls were still used. Another example would be, “Don’t beat around the bush.” That idiom, I believe, originated from a 16th-century poem. Don’t quote me on it. I’m not a credible history source. But, if you use that idiom in a 14th-century piece you’re writing, though not every one of your readers will catch it, it’s like a lie few recognize: You ruin your credibility with them, and you create for yourself a bad foundation on which to grow as a writer. No, an obscure idiom placement won’t prevent you from being a best-selling author or anything, but if you’re reading this post, I’d hope you care enough about your writing to prevent an easily avoidable mistake.
I know, I killed writing for you, forever. That’s why I end all my posts with a phrase to remind you that this not-so-fun part of writing shouldn’t concern you until you’re done.
Write for yourself, but edit for your readers.
Please let me know your thoughts and if you played my game, tell me how many idioms you found! 🙂
As always, have an incredible day, and I hope this helps you in your writing endeavors.