Okay, that’s overstating it. Misused metaphors won’t destroy your writing, but they’ll damage it. At best, readers will feel something’s not quite right. At worse, they’ll be confused.
We’ll look at constructing metaphors in two parts. Today’s focus is on the problem of mixed metaphors. The next installment will be on deploying metaphors artfully.
What’s a metaphor?
Metaphors are figures of speech that make a comparison between things that aren’t related. They’re valuable because they can help us understand an issue quicker and more completely than otherwise – if we use them right.
(Please note: I’m talking about using metaphors for business or commercial writing, not for literary purposes. We’re just trying to convey information here, not show off our creative-writing chops.)
Metaphors have seeped into our language so thoroughly that they constantly pop out into our speech and writing. We don’t even think about them. That’s the problem.
The mixed metaphor
The mixed metaphor is a byproduct of this lack of thought: The writer employs two different metaphors without reconciling them.
Here’s one I came across recently. It was in a post in which a woman in her 40s encouraged young adults to not be afraid to take risks early in their careers:
You have tons of runway left in front of you, so if you err in your risk-taking, there’s plenty of time for a mulligan.
We’ve got two metaphors going on here:
- An airplane’s take-off
- A do-over in golf
That’s the mixed part: The writer has moved her readers from the controls of a plane to a golf course in one sentence. The result: It’s not particularly clear what point she’s trying to make.
Put down that metaphor before somebody gets hurt
When it comes to metaphors, writers should follow one of the rules of the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.” It’s better to write neutrally than try to force an unnatural metaphor.
So let’s see how the author could have expressed the same thought without metaphors:
Early in your career, don’t be afraid to take risks. You will have many years ahead of you to develop a successful career, despite any initial mistakes.
That’s at least a little clearer, if not particularly inspiring. How could the writer capture this as a metaphor?
Try to see the metaphor you’re using
Writers use clunky metaphors when they fail to visualize what they’re talking about. The mixed-metaphor above fails because the writer didn’t get an image in her mind of what she was trying to say.
In fact, neither metaphor matches the job asked of it. The take-off metaphor would work if she were describing someone getting a slow start, not someone heading off in different directions. The mulligan metaphor would work if she was talking about others giving you a break for your mistakes, not changing your own strategy.
How about this instead:
Your career will be a long climb. If you slip in your first few steps, there will still be time to regain your footing.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But again, we’re just trying to make a point with more power than the neutral expression. It’s not intended to knock out the reader, just to have some impact.
In fact, you really DON’T want to try to hit too hard with metaphors. We’ll take a look at how that can cause problems in the next installment.
Are metaphors tripping you up? I can help you saunter down this verbal pathway without bumping your toes. Call 612-419-4405 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.