How to Write a Proverb
Strictly speaking, it is impossible to “write” a proverb, since by definition proverbs emerge from the general culture and do not have a single author. However, you can incorporate proverbs into your writing under some circumstances, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
There is an exception to this general rule in the case of science fiction and fantasy, when authors must often create fictional cultures. One way to display the values and symbols of a fictional culture is to create a few proverbs for it. There are two steps to inventing a fictional proverb for a made-up culture.
- Determine the culture’s values. For a village of wood elves, this might be such virtues as patience, stealth, and harmony with nature. For an aggressive alien species, on the other hand, the proverbs might be more about bloodlust and clan loyalty.
- Find an appropriate metaphor. To give your “proverb” as much texture as possible, decide what kind of figurative imagery your invented culture might be most likely to use. To return to our earlier examples, the elves might use metaphors of trees or water (e.g. “The slowest shoots become the strongest trees”) while the aggressive aliens might draw on more brutal metaphors (e.g. “blood is sweeter than honey.”)
When to use a Proverb
You can also use proverbs in formal essays, but it’s best to do so only if you intend to challenge or complicate them in some way. Because proverbs are so general and drawn from the broader culture, they don’t fit in well with two of the main goals of formal writing: specificity and originality. But for the very same reason, challenging a proverb is a good way to give your argument teeth and show that there is a genuine question to be answered by your paper.
For example, a philosophy paper might begin this way:
General wisdom suggests that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ meaning all aesthetic judgements are subjective. But recent experiments indicate that there may be objective, universal standards of artistic beauty shared across all human cultures. Does this mean that beauty is not a subjective judgement?
This opening would clearly describe the questions to be answered by the paper, and show that the author has something interesting to say – something that readers might not already expect or realize.
Never use a proverb as evidence in an argument – this is equivalent to the “appeal to widespread belief,” a well-known logical fallacy.