How to write an Aphorism
In order to write a good aphorism, you have to have two things:
- Considerable wisdom
- A good sense for metaphors
In order to be a true aphorism rather than a truism or cliché, an aphorism has to contain a new, thought-provoking idea, and those are difficult to come up with on your own! In addition, aphorisms have to make a complicated point in a very short space of time, so a good metaphor is invaluable in writing aphorisms.
Writing good aphorisms may be the most difficult task for any writer – that’s probably why so few writers do it these days! But the best way to practice writing aphorisms is to start by re-writing aphorisms that already exist. Take the underlying concept of a common aphorism and try to come up with a new metaphor for it. Try to capture the basic wisdom behind the aphorism and clothe it in new imagery. Aphorisms are extremely challenging to write so don’t worry if your aphorisms seem uninteresting at first!
Old Aphorism: That’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
New Aphorism: That’s just the way the water flows.
Old Aphorism: Never judge a book by its cover.
New Aphorism: Don’t judge the meal until you taste it.
When to use Aphorisms
It’s best to avoid aphorisms in all forms of formal writing. The only people who really get away with writing in aphorisms are great philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, or Nietzsche. Aphorisms afford almost no room to explain your meaning, so a formal essay containing too many aphorisms could be unclear or vague. Worse still, it might come across as arrogant – as if you’re imitating Marcus Aurelius’s writing style because you believe that you’re on his level as a thinker. (Which no writer can claim unless people are still reading their work 1,800 years from now!)
A good aphorism can work well in creative writing if you want to show how wise and concise a certain character is. Yoda and Gandalf often speak in aphorisms, and it’s part of what makes them so compelling as characters. However, it’s a risky technique – if you have your character speak in aphorisms, there’s always the chance that the reader will view these lines as truisms, in which case the character will merely come across as pretentious and shallow!