The power of metaphor

By Helen Sword | Published: May 20th, 2015 | Stylish writing

The Writer’s Diet evolved from a one-page handout that I used to distribute to the students in my undergraduate English classes.  The title was “Writing and Editing Tips” or something equally bland, and my students paid about as much attention to it as they did to any of the other well-meaning writing advice that I routinely doled out to them in class: in other words, not much.

Then one day I decided to zing up the handout with a catchy metaphor.  I relabelled it “The Writer’s Diet,” added some references to “fit and flabby” prose, and stuck on a new byline: “By Dr. Helen Sword, registered verbal nutritionist.”  Within days after distributing the updated version, I knew that my changes had struck a chord.  Although the writing and editing tips offered in the “new” handout were almost identical to those in the old one, my students started using them, talking about them, internalizing them, remembering them.  That’s the power of metaphor.

The Writer’s Diet works by taking a fairly abstract idea (“good writing is clear, concise, and carefully crafted”) and rendering it concrete and memorable.  For some people, the word “diet” connotes the consumption of healthy foods (as in “eating a balanced diet”). For others, it suggests an expenditure of energy (as in “going on a diet” or, more positively, “getti­­­­ng fit”).  Either way, the metaphor sends a powerful message: “fit and trim” prose requires high-quality ingredients and plenty of exercise.

Not everyone likes the diet/edit analogy, but nearly everyone finds it easy to remember.  That’s how metaphor works: by planting a visual image in your mind that you cannot easily forget. Indeed, the book and website adhere to one of the core Writer’s Diet principles: “Anchor abstract ideas in concrete language and images.”  A nearly fail-safe trick for energizing your writing is to add a metaphor, a concrete image, or even just a sentence beginning with those helpful words, “For example….”

Comments are closed.