Monday, July 11, 2011

Did I really write that? A guide to metaphors and similes

Okay, it's not looking good for Sunday check-ins for ROW80 so I think I'm just going to stick to Wednesday updates instead. Now, on to my Monday post:

Last Thursday former literary agent/current author Nathan Bransford critiqued a writer's page with his main takeaway being "Avoid being writerly. "

As he explains it: "When you're being writerly, your writing is making things less clear with clever word play."

Now, as a part of an online critique group, I find that I can pick out the "writerly" and point it out to other writers. Surely I am not guilty of this, right?


I was editing a story that I'd written and found this line:

She ducked her head, her hair catching on a rusted nail that stuck out from the wood like a fishing pole over the ocean, trying to catch...

Guess where that sentence ended up

Apparently I'd stopped there and continued, I'm guessing because even while writing it my subconscious was trying to get my attention and pull me from that train of thought. Seriously, a fishing pole over the ocean? What the heck?

I don't remember writing this, but I know that I did and I can even guess at my train of thought. It probably had something to do with "Oh, this scene doesn't have enough descriptive imagery" or "I sound too telly, I need to do some more showing." Blech.

Metaphors and similies definitely add to writing, but are a main symptoms to the "writerly" disease.  So how do you self-diagnose? There are a few things that I do while editing:

1. Look at the similes, metaphors, and descriptions in your work and ask yourself if they are necessary. In my example, I was just describing a nail. Totally inconsequential and never mentioned again in the story. The "fishing rod over the ocean" doesn't convey any more imagery than "nail jutting out from the wood" would. The MC didn't even see the nail until after the fact, so the description is totally and completely unnecessary. Similes and metaphors are important descriptive tools when you can make them work.

2. Look at the frequency of similies, metaphors, and descriptions in your work. If you have a metaphor appearing every two lines, chances are high that the reader is going to notice them and become more distant from the story. The metaphors should flow within the words so that you barely notice them while you read instead of feeling like a forced writerly tool.

3. Look at the length of your similies, metaphors, and descriptions. My example could work if I adjusted it a bit and the MC had some knowledge of fishing rods over the ocean. However, it is getting too long. Part of the reason I probably cut it off was because it was just trailing along with no end in sight. 

Here's an example of a simile done well:

From The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

"The ride was actually over in six and a half minutes, and I had no choice but to hobble like an off-balance giraffe on my one flat, one four-inch heel arrangement."

The simile describes how the protagonist looks so that the reader can envision the scene (1) and is short and to the point (3).  

How do you self-diagnose writing ailments?


  1. Excellent post on similies :-) I'll check in on Wednesday for your ROW80 update.

  2. Thanks, Emma! Glad you enjoyed it!