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Two Cents on Picking the Perfect Pun (or Idiom) by Kimberly Wilson

Puns and idioms can be worth their weight in gold. If purposeful to the plot and emotional arc, they enhance the story and even give the reader a chuckle. But there is fine line between using these types of wordplay for the sake of using them and carefully selecting those that drive the story forward and have the perfect meaning (or double meaning––my personal favorite!).


Read-aloud-ability, Pacing, and Meanings Must be on the Money


It’s important to hear manuscripts read aloud at critique group meetings. A good pun or idiom should roll off the reader’s tongue. Immediately delete the ones that make you cringe as they stutter, squint––or worse––ask if it’s a typo!


While writing a first draft, I make a word bank of every pun I can find (or make up!). I overload my manuscript with them and pare down throughout the revision process. One example of a forced pun was in an early version of A DOLLAR’S GRAND DREAM (Page Street Kids 2023), the story of a dollar bill who realizes living the grand life might not be as one-derful as it seems. The phrase, “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” kept running through my head. I thought to myself, cash is green. So, I swapped out “grass” and typed the line, “The cash isn’t always greener on the other side.” There were several problems with this pun/idiom hybrid. Everyone who read the manuscript stopped on this sentence. The pause ruined the pacing and squashed any shot at a humorous moment. This reaction was most likely because the meaning did not make sense. Grass is more desirable when greener, but is money? Not really. In addition, I had already shown that theme throughout, so the line felt superfluous and didactic. Needless to say, the phrase did not make it into the next revision.


Take Your Audience into Account


Children may not understand the humor behind every pun or idiom, and that’s okay. But the language used must still have a pronunciation and meaning they can easily understand in the context of the story. For example, in my debut picture book, A PENNY’S WORTH (Page Street Kids, April 5, 2022), about the importance of self-worth, Penny thinks being ignored is “non-cents.” The word sounds the same as “nonsense” to a child listening, and though they might not understand the play on words like an adult, they still know the implied meaning; “absurd.”


I recently wrote a blog post for Tara Lazar’s Storystorm where I talked about using puns and idioms as a brainstorming tool. A teacher commented that she loves when puns are used in picture books so she can talk about wordplay with her students––an instant language arts lesson!


But picture books aren’t only for kids, they are also for grown-ups. My husband is a prime example of someone who really enjoyed reading to our kids if the book kept him entertained too. Clever wordplay did the trick every time!


Cash in on Perfect Placement and Emotional Resonance


While writing A PENNY’S WORTH, the emotional arc was extremely important, which meant the pun and idiom selection had to show the exact feeling Penny had at each point in the story. In the beginning, she feels “like a million bucks!” Near her low-low, she’s “thrown in a tailspin.” And at the end she says, “I’m priceless.” Then, “for the first time, everything made cents.” The last two were flip-flopped and moved around the manuscript several times. But when my critique partners read them and said, “Awwww”–– Cha-ching!––I knew, dollars for doughnuts, the placement of each idiom and pun was perfect.


I hope this post inspires you to incorporate a wealth of cent-sational puns and idioms in your own writing!


Kimberly Wilson’s prized childhood possessions included a butterfly Trapper Keeper full of her stories, an overflowing bookshelf, and a pocket thesaurus. But it took many years (and a couple careers) before she pursued her dream of writing for children. A lover of puns and wordplay, Kimberly enjoys mixing humor, heart, and educational details into her writing. Her debut picture book, A PENNY’S WORTH (Page Street Kids) is illustrated by Mark Hoffmann and releases April 5, 2022, followed by the sequel, A DOLLAR’S GRAND DREAM, in 2023. Kimberly lives in North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and their puppy. Follow her @authorkimwilson on Twitter, or @kimberlywilsonwrites on FB, Instagram, Goodreads, and LinkedIn. Visit her website