Metaphors – How to use them when you write

Everybody uses metaphors. Justly. They are a natural way to illustrate. However, use them wrong and they can really mess you up.

Don’t want to get crowded? Then learn the 3 good rules about metaphors (and all other figures of speech, as they apply widely).

1. Do not mix them. Saying something like “knowing the ropes paves the way for a fruitful harvest”, for example, as I once saw in a royal memo, is illogical. (Ropes, pavement, and farming have nothing to do with each other.) Why is logic important? Because if you mix images like this, you will be rightly accused of not thinking about what you are writing.

2. Don’t start your metaphor with “quotes” or the British “back quotes”. He is amateur. Your reader is smart enough to know when you are using a figure of speech. You would only use this punctuation if you were defining an unusual or made-up word. This is called a “neologism”. Even with a neologism, you would only use quotation marks once, when defining your new term; forever, your reader would not need them. Neologisms are not usually metaphors, in any case. So remember, there is no special punctuation for metaphors.

3. Make up your own metaphors. Don’t use the ones you’ve already heard. This is important. First, wearing someone else’s makes you look lazy, and you are. Second, because he’s lazy, sooner or later he’ll accidentally mix one up, or use one that isn’t quite right for the situation. And you will lose your credibility. So never talk about needles in haystacks, or taking bulls by the horns, or anything else you’ve heard before. Invent new ones.

Here is a bit of vocabulary to be clear. These are three terms that you will hear from time to time, whenever people talk about figures of speech. A metaphor, technically, is an implicit comparison, like talking about the whole world being a stage and the people on it playing. A ‘simile’ (pronounced SIM-uh-lee) is the same idea, only more obvious, and uses ‘like’ or ‘as’. Then his tears fell like rain; his lips were sweet as wine. That is a simile. And finally: ‘snapshot’. This is how the printers called the plate used for printing stereotypes. It now refers to any term, phrase, or idea that is repeated so often that it loses its meaning. (You can see why ‘stereotype’ is now also used the way it is.) ‘Wowing in self-pity’ is an example of a cliché. The term is overused. When loosely applied to a situation, it is said to be ‘trite’.

OKAY? Now stoke those fires, keep your powder dry, clean the covers and write.

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