The best phrases use words to paint a scene

Delightful phrases abound — in books, newspapers, and magazines, as well as Internet newsletters that invite readers to submit their favorites.

A year ago, when I urged readers to do so, compelling examples poured in, such as this line from the TV series “Downton Abbey”, in which actress Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess , taunts a political rival: “Do you ever feel cold in high moral spheres?”

So now I present three of my favorite new phrases, just written by a reader of this column, Sharon Wagner, an artist and writer from Minneapolis who happily reports that her first magazine article has just been published.

Delight barely describes my excitement at his talent. In a travel magazine, Wagner described his experience walking along a beach in Costa Rica:

“You may find an old, abandoned boat on the sand, filled with nets and anchors, backing onto a vast stretch of coastline. Or a strange bone, coconut remains, smooth stone or seashell at your feet. At low tide, large boulders dot the sand like the surface of a chocolate chip cookie, and overhead, inaudible trails of pelicans skim the sky.”

In my opinion, it meets the high standard master writer Joseph Conrad set for himself: “My task, which I try to accomplish, is through the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, above all, to show you. That — and nothing more — and that is all.

Surely we can see this beach. Can’t you smell the ocean air? And although we can’t hear these pelicans, we can imagine their sound at altitude.

Now look at the verb she so carefully chose in “trails of pelicans cross the sky”.

This all reminds me of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur”:

“There is the dearest freshness at the bottom of things.”

Wagner captures this freshness, with originality, as in this comparison: “At low tide, large rocks dot the sand, like the surface of a chocolate chip cookie…”

I wrote to congratulate Wagner, and she replied:

“Thank you for your feedback! It has strengthened my heart. I have a novel under review with a publisher and your feedback has made me feel like a yes is possible.”

She set a great example. Let’s follow him while we encourage him.

Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, who teaches journalism at Colorado College, can be reached through

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