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Manage Your Metaphors

A good metaphor is a bridge for your readers. (Photo courtesy Julie Velez)

Every document is, essentially, a phone call —  a conversation between you and your readers, and you’ve got to establish a connection before you can start talking. I’ve said that before, haven’t I?

I’ve also said a good first draft is a block of marble, from which to carve that glorious statue known as a final manuscript. Oh, and telling instead of showing is the same thing as playing a game of poker with your cards on the table. Good document structure is a tower of red, yellow, and blue blocks. Poetry is magic, punctuation is alchemy, and so is blogging about your life.

Oh, and a blog itself? Do you have any idea what a blog is? I looked into it, and it turns out:

That’s an awful lot of rhetorical symbolism on one topic, but I knew before I did the Google search that I’d get something along those lines. Why? Because for a long time there were a lot of people who wanted to know what blogging was. And while I talked a few weeks ago about the importance of accurate descriptions, sometimes the very best way to describe something is to spend some time describing something else altogether.

The Power of Metaphor

I said once that technical writing is all about taking something you understand, and presenting it to your reader in a way they can understand. I called that process “translating understanding.”

We do that in a few ways. Accurate descriptions and strong illustrations help make the unfamiliar seem familiar. Detailed charts and numbers create concrete touchstones to keep the unknown rooted in the known. And metaphors harness the power of human creativity to fashion a parallel between something understood by the reader, and something only fully understood by the writer.

In other words, it’s a bridge. Your reader starts out on the far side of a chasm — their ignorance — and you have to find some way to bring them across before you can begin any real communication. A metaphor uses something already familiar to the reader to cover over that chasm and easily bring them to the other side. It’s a natural and familiar process, and one that can be immensely powerful.

The Pitfalls of Metaphor

Of course, as with any bridge, there’s a risk of falling. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose your readers partway through the crossing, and when the chasm is a bottomless pit of ignorance, getting them back out again can be a tricky process!

Here’s some of the easiest ways to lose your readers:

Making a Hasty Metaphor

Every time you create a metaphor (or simile, or any rhetorical analogy), you’re risking losing the reader, so you need to learn to respect that danger. Most of the truly egregious metaphors are the ones made in haste, when you casually say, “Well, it’s like this…” but it’s really not like that.

Get in the habit of catching yourself early, and double-check your metaphor before you commit to it.

Choosing a Poor Comparison

Obviously this ties in to the previous point, but sometimes even when you stop and think, you’ll still make the wrong choice. This usually happens for one of two reasons: either you fall in love with the elegance of your metaphor and refuse to give it up (even when it falls apart), or you rightly diagnose a good metaphor, but it’s not good for your readers.

There are no style points in technical writing. You’re creating this comparison to clarify a point for a specific audience, and if your metaphor doesn’t do that — no matter how beautiful or technically accurate it may be — it’s a poor metaphor.

Insufficiently Explaining Your Metaphor

There are times when your metaphor is good, but as a bridge, it just doesn’t quite span the gap. It’s a clean comparison, it should be a good description for your readers, but whenever they get to your metaphor, they fall through the gaps! That may not be a problem with the comparison you’ve chosen. It’s possible you just haven’t explained it enough.

Obviously, we use metaphors to save words, to increase efficiency, but imagine a perfectly constructed bridge, rising majestically out of the mists in the bottom of a canyon…but unconnected at both ends. It reaches all the way across a mile-long gap, but at each end, it stops ten feet short of the ledge.

A bridge like that could be durable, elegant, cheaply constructed but reliably made. It could be everything a project engineer ever dreamed of, but without those last ten feet on each end, it’s worthless. In the same way, a metaphor doesn’t work until you make the connection. Review your parallels, review your introduction and the little touches you add along the way, and make sure it goes the distance.

Overextending Your Metaphor

Of course, adding words to it doesn’t necessarily help. Just like a bridge that keeps going beyond the width of the gap that it’s filling, using significantly more materials and resources (and requiring…extensive…digging work, I guess?), to do a job that could just as easily be done just by pouring a thin layer of concrete across the topsoil and using a road….

Umm…yeah. Always remember, no matter how good your metaphor, that it’s just a stepping stone to your actual point. Be ready to abandon it the moment that its job is done. That’s important to remember because, no matter how good the parallel, when you’re talking about the metaphor, you’re talking about something that is inherently not your topic. Your goal isn’t to establish a parallel and just discuss that, but to establish a parallel and get the reader into the right position to start discussing your actual topic.

So use your metaphor! Bridges are useful, and so are metaphors. But use it to get where you need to be, and then switch your focus. Sometimes you’ll do that early in the document, once, and sometimes you’ll keep going back to the metaphor, again and again, but every single time you go back, make sure that you ultimately end up discussing your actual topic again. Getting readers safely across and back again is your full-time job, after all.

Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

One Response to “Manage Your Metaphors”

  1. Julie Velez says:

    So clever of you to make your point by using a giant metaphor!