Monday, May 17, 2010

Behold the Well-Turned Phrase!

For me, one thing that makes a piece of writing enjoyable to read is when the writer uses what I call "well-turned phrases" regularly throughout the piece. By "well-turned phrase" I mean a phrase that is succinct, evocative, effective, and contains an unusual or unexpected reference or association.

Once again, I'm going to refer to the book I'm currently reading, which is A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. Maguire describes the terrain at one point as "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret."

When I read that phrase, I literally stopped (briefly, not long enough to take me out of the story) and smiled.  Why? Because that eight-word phrase conveyed information in way that resonated with me, and in a way that I had not seen dozens of times before.

I am just one person and I'm not a professional writing instructor, but let me try to explain why the phrase works so well for me.

Let's start with "scrappy farms." The word scrappy gives me a sense of two qualities: fragmented or disjointed (composed of scraps) and contentious (or, perhaps in a more positive light, having a fighting spirit). Right away, my mind is filled with images of farms that are not in good shape but also refuse to succumb to defeat.

These farms are "worn grey" -- a color that makes me think of old age, ill health, and shabbiness. The word "worn" itself suggests "worn out" or "worn down" -- weak, struggling, aged.

Finally, the farms are worn grey "with wind and regret." What a difference the word "regret" makes when used in this context. Maguire could have said "with wind and dust" or "with wind and drought." Instead, he pairs a concrete, physical word (wind) with the more abstract term regret. This takes us into the minds and hearts of those who tilled the soil, sowed the seeds, and nurtured the plants. . . or those who failed to nurture the plants, as the case may be. These farms are just-barely-living testimonials to hard times and neglect.

Think about how much more effective "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret" is than a phrase such as "the desolate countryside" or "farms that had seen better days."

If you are a writer, perhaps you automatically use well-turned phrases in your writing. If not, take a moment when you're "finished" with a piece to wander back through it. Scout for places where you can replace a flat, colorless, or clunky phrase with one that is well-turned.

In the meantime, I hope you will share a well-turned phrase from your work or someone else's, and tell us briefly what you like about it!


  1. I once wrote this a very long time ago"

    "and then the fairy dust and the veil of illusions they weave will be like webs of gossamer to my memory."

  2. That is a beautiful turn of phrase, Helen!


So, what do you say?