Have you ever believed something was true just because it made for a snappy sentence? Then you know exactly what an aphorism is.
Statements like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” or “measure twice, cut once” are so commonplace that we don’t even bother to question the wisdom behind them. As it turns out, there’s an art to it.
But what goes into making an aphorism so successful, and how do you write one of your own that will stick to your readers’ ribs?
What Is an Aphorism?
Let’s start with a simple aphorism definition. An aphorism is a moral or philosophical lesson shrunk down to a sentence-sized prescription.
Of all the famous examples of aphorisms, the easiest to remember is the fortune cookie. If you can cram some moral or life advice into a fortune cookie phrase, you’ve got the recipe for an aphorism.
Examples of Aphorisms
Aphorisms have an “earworm” quality to them. They get into our heads and live there so successfully that we sometimes forget to question the underlying wisdom. Consider the following aphorism examples and turns of phrase you might have heard over the years:
- “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
- “Actions speak louder than words.”
- “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
- “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
- “Live to fight another day.”
- “Never interrupt your enemy when they’re making a mistake.”
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The Difference Between Aphorisms and Idioms
Idioms are literary devices with a similar purpose: to distill wisdom into a bite-sized portion. However, idioms often employ figurative language and metaphors to get their points across. For example, “don’t beat around the bush” uses a metaphorical bush to paint a picture.
In contrast, an aphorism will just come right out and tell you the wisdom it wants to impart.
Let’s take an example from literature. In Harper Lee’s famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch relays this bit of advice:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Thanks to Harper Lee’s writing, we have an example of an aphorism and an idiom in the same sentiment. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” is an aphorism. It’s a bit of wisdom condensed into one sentence, with no fluff or flowery language.
But then Finch continues: “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” That’s a metaphor—at least, we really hope it’s a metaphor. In both sentences, Lee is communicating the same idea. But it’s Finch’s approach to sharing wisdom that differentiates between an aphorism and an idiom.
How to Write Aphorisms
It’s not hard to write down some basic wisdom, distill it into one sentence, and hope for the best. The challenge is in making an aphorism that sticks. Let’s explore how to write aphorisms by looking at what the most common aphorisms already share.
- “Good artists create. Great artists steal.” In this aphorism, commonly attributed to Picasso, we have one key element to good, bite-sized wisdom: contrast. It’s the same reason why “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” has stuck around. Using contrast between two ideas helps establish the context for the wisdom. And by using a repeatable pattern, you’ll also make your aphorism more memorable.
- “Not all those who wander are lost.” This aphorism is unique because it comes from a writer: J.R.R. Tolkien, who included it in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. What can we take from this aphorism? Poetic meter. “Not ALL those who WAN-der are LOST” adds an extra syllable, but the poem begins in dactylic meter. This gives the phrase a sort of “music.” It sings. The wisdom sticks in the reader’s ear. If you want to create a memorable aphorism, consider writing it in blank verse like this one.
- “You can kill a person but you can’t kill an idea.” Finally, we can’t get through aphorisms without addressing the elephant in the room: you have to have something profound to say. Without that—as we see in the “can’t kill an idea” example—there isn’t much to remember. The best aphorisms have a way of communicating deep, hard-won insights in the space of just a few words. Before you start writing aphorisms, take plenty of time to consider what it is you want to say.
Writing Aphorisms From Scratch
A good writer can incorporate aphorisms into their dialogue, their prose, or even the fantastical lore of their novels to enrichen the writing. Consider Jane Austen’s famous beginning to Pride and Prejudice, which starts with a general aphorism about wealthy bachelors being in want of a wife. Done right, you can play aphorisms for comedy, use them to break up the monotony of repetitive prose, or have your characters say something profound from time to time.
How do you do it? Review the aphorisms above and ask yourself what makes them stick. Remember: Good aphorisms may teach you once, but great aphorisms will stay with you for a lifetime. (Hey. Not bad!)
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