Authors Should Need a License to Write Metaphors

And I mean that literally, not figuratively. The author of a manuscript I edited recently loved metaphors, but she used them poorly. Her implied resemblances between unrelated things tended to be convoluted and to confuse more than clarify. Moreover, they were trite (life is a tapestry) and often mixed (life is a race and a puzzle, at the same time). I rewrote the metaphors that could be salvaged and deleted the ones that had no hope of making a positive contribution to the text.

I got to thinking that maybe only writers as masterful as Shakespeare should be allowed to use figurative language.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

See? Nice.

But maybe I was being too restrictive. Metaphors, similes, and analogies can elicit a deeper understanding of a concept when they are original, apt, and clear. They can also convey meaning quickly, vividly, and memorably, whether in writing or in speech. For example, my husband uses a number of effective analogies—relating to Mrs. Fields cookies, ordering in a restaurant, and getting highlights at the salon—in business negotiations.

So if you really want to compare your beloved to a summer’s day, I won’t stop you. You might consider the following steps for creating your very own fancy talk:

  1. Select the concept you want to illustrate through a metaphor, simile, or analogy. Example: life.
  2. Identify the point you’d like to make about the concept. Example: Life is full of surprises, and you never know what will happen next.
  3. Think of an unrelated idea that has the same qualities as your concept and the point Box of Chocolatesyou are trying to make. Example: In a box of assorted chocolates, the candies look similar on the outside, but inside there might be nougat, ganache, caramel, lemon, cherry, raspberry, key lime, coconut, mocha, mint, pineapple, marshmallow, marzipan, fudge, almond crunch…sorry, where was I? Until you bite into one of the chocolates, you won’t know what’s inside.
  4. Formulate and refine your simple and stunning figure of speech. Example: Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

A bad metaphor can obscure even the most obvious idea. But a good metaphor, according to poet Pablo Neruda, can reveal the mysteries of the world.

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