How to improve your writing by creating great metaphors

improve your writing with metaphors
A pretty gull can be the basis of a memorable metaphor.

(Part 2 of 2 parts)

Great headline writers are the poets of journalism.

As a former journalist, I learned to appreciate those who could turn a clever phrase that served as the capstone for my stories (note: reporters don’t write their own headlines – that’s done by copy editors).

One of the best uses of a figure of speech that I’ve ever read was a headline on a story published probably 35 years ago in our local newspaper – and I remember it to this day. The story was about how sea gulls were causing problems at the airport. Pilots and air traffic controllers were concerned that they were going to get sucked into the engines and create just the kind of problems encountered by the now-famous landing of the plane on the Hudson River by Sully Sullenberger in January 2009.

The headline read: “A pretty gull is like a malady.” This short, simple headline is particularly impressive because it is both a metaphor and a simile – and it’s a humorous play on words to boot. It’s obviously a simile, in that it compares two things and uses “like” to connect them. But beyond the simile, it is referring to the familiar old Irving Berlin song,

Great metaphors are organic

Crafting great metaphors is one of the most creative ways to add chili powder to your writing and transform it from a boring bean soup into a four-alarm meal. But metaphors should emerge organically from your writing. Said another way, they aren’t ornaments you hang off the branches of the Christmas tree, but rather the full green needles, pine scent and perfect shape of the tree itself.

Here are some tips to consider when writing your own great metaphors:

  • First, reduce your idea to its simplest level. Find an example that is very familiar to help explain a concept that is not familiar. Often something in nature or a well-known science fiction story can be used as a metaphor to explain a difficult concept, procedure, idea or a machine. For example, “He’s sucking her money dry. He’s a vampire.”
  • Think about relationships. If you’ve ever taken the SAT or similar standardized tests, you’ll recall the multiple choice questions that asked you to choose from among a list of pairs that had the same relationship as the original pair, so that the answer might be: “An IP address is to the internet what is needle is to a haystack.”
  • Make sure your comparisons “track” all the way through the metaphor so that you don’t end up with a “mixed,” illogical metaphor. What results is absurd! For example: “Something’s fishy – I smell a rat.”
  • Use metaphors as various parts of speech. Metaphors can be used as verbs, adjectives and adverbs, prepositional phrases or as appositives or modifiers.
  • Break some rules. Metaphors allow you to think about words and the world in new ways. They stretch your mind as well as the meanings of words. That’s why poets favor them so often.

Metaphors: ‘A sign of genius’

Metaphors can be used to inspire, inform, interpret, enliven or entertain – not only the reader, but the writer, as well. And according to Aristotle, they’re a sign of genius.

“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” he wrote in Poetics. It is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

* OK, so you probably won’t get rich from writing great metaphors, but being considered a genius is pretty cool, right?


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