We talked last time about the problem of the mixed metaphor in which a writer starts with one idea, then shifts to another midsentence. It’s a jarring effect that’s likely to confuse the reader.
At the opposite extreme is the metaphor that plays out too long or the metaphor that’s so overused that it’s become a cliché.
A metaphor that makes you seasick
For example, I got a mailer recently from a local financial advisor, inviting me to a dinner seminar on investing. Beneath a photo of a sailboat were this headline, subhead and body copy:
Headline: Outlook and Opportunities: Finding the Prevailing Winds
Subhead: Which Way Are the Financial Winds Blowing?
Body copy: Choppiness and volatility have returned to the markets recently. Whether you’ve sailed during the recent market crests and troughs, or remained ashore, there are actions you can take now to help better position you to pursue your financial goals.
Okay, we got it: Investing wisely is a lot like being a smart sailor. But it’s an overdone analogy, with two references to financial winds, choppy waters and staying ashore. Perhaps sensing that the metaphor’s gone on too long, the writer abandons it at the end. He reverts to neutral words like “action” and “pursue.”
Don’t belabor your metaphors
One option is to condense the metaphor into a much shorter statement so it doesn’t feel too labored. Like this:
Headline: Catching the Prevailing Winds
Body copy: It’s been rough sailing for investors lately, as the market crests and troughs. We can help you find the right tack to reach your financial destination.
From there, I’d shift directly to what the financial advisor says he’ll talk about at the dinner: outlook for the economy, inflation and interest rates, and opportunities in domestic and foreign stocks markets. The net effect is to use a metaphor to create a theme for the talk without calling undue attention to the writing itself.
Strive for something fresh
Others might argue that my rewrite doesn’t do much more than end the agony more quickly. Because it’s so clichéd, it’s doomed, no matter how much it’s rewritten.
I wouldn’t contest that. Sailing turbulent seas, overcoming obstacles, climbing mountains – these metaphors have worn out their welcome in the financial world. Prospective customers have heard and read them all.
Instead, the financial advisor might look to issues connected to new technology to make the point, such information overload, instantaneous communication and computerized decision-making. These don’t need to be metaphors per se, as much as scene-setters that show the advisor knows what issues prospective customers are struggling with.
So the first order of business is to make sure you’re not reaching for a shop-worn metaphor to make your point. At that point, you’re dealing with clichés that have long ceased to be valuable.
Sometimes it’s the application that matters
While nautical metaphors may be predictable for financial service companies, that doesn’t mean they’re useless in every application. Consider this excerpt from a piece on the power vacuum in the Reagan White House, courtesy of Alexander Haig, of all people:
It was, he said, “as mysterious as a ghost ship; you heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm? Was it Meese, was it Baker, was it someone else? It was impossible to know for sure.”
What I like about this metaphor is that it quickly gives you a feel of the place in a way you couldn’t get across as succinctly without it. It’s artfully expressed. “Creak of the rigging and groan of the timbers” gives you an auditory impression that’s not something you read every day about governmental functioning. But it backs off from going too far and returns to its main point: You didn’t know who was in charge.
An art, not a science
Metaphors are an element of writing that’s probably more art than science. There’s no formula that tells you when a metaphor has gone on too long or has been overused. You just need to develop a feel from them.
That comes from reading and paying attention. Whenever I rewrite my essay, I look for both successful and unsuccessful ones in newspapers, ads, even songs. Study them, pick them apart and then follow them as best you can in your own work.
Struggling with metaphors? Don’t hurt yourself! I can help. Call me at 612-419-4405 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.