📚 3 ways to make your writing vivid 📚

Metaphor Map #9

Hey friend and welcome to Metaphor Map!

This issue features metaphors from an entertainment reporter, a product evangelist, and a psychotherapist. 

Vividness isn’t the exclusive domain of novelists. Good writing is vivid--even if you’re preparing a presentation, creating a report, or pitching a product. 

A vivid idea is an idea with handholds. When ideas aren’t vivid, readers and listeners reach for the ideas but can’t find purchase. At best, they see the idea and it slips from memory later; at worst, they hold and inspect it, but they can’t understand it. 

Let’s look at three ways different people have used metaphors to make their ideas vivid. 

1. Flies

“And yet, when I wake up, I don’t feel as sluggish as I normally do. I find it easier to get out of bed. The intrusive thoughts that normally buzz around my brain like flies on a feeding frenzy have disappeared… Despite everything, I realize, I am OK. More OK than I have been in years. That’s a strange thing to admit. But evidently I’m not alone.”

- Laura Bradley, If You Have Anxiety and Depression but Feel Better During Coronavirus, You’re Not Alone

Entertainment reporter Laura Bradley writes about the odd sensation many people with chronic depression and anxiety have felt since the start of this pandemic. 

There’s an eerie calm to quarantine, a sense that the anxious rhythms of the world have finally met your pace. There’s comfort, strange comfort, in that.

Bradley is writing to an audience that knows this feeling and to an audience that doesn’t. Both require a vivid description to understand the before-times and the after-times. Otherwise, we are left with nebulous, sterile terms: anxiety, nervousness, less anxious, less nervous. It’s not enough. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg, author of Several Short Sentences About Writing warns frequently about the boring danger of noun phrases. According to him, turning verbs (to think) into nouns (thought) “depletes their energy” and leaves it “incapable of action.” 

You can use the verb form to recover that energy or as Bradley does, you can turn to metaphor. 

Thoughts aren’t merely intrusive; they intrude like flies, like frenzied flies finding food. Bradley makes these thoughts vivid by injecting a metaphor that has the energy of a verb (the flies flying and buzzing) where there would normally be one of those inert nouns. 

Let’s riff on this a little. We’re looking for two things: nouns that would otherwise feel inert and descriptors that would fit the metaphor we’re using.

🎸 He could shrug off criticism. But these critiques were flies on a feeding frenzy, buzzing in his face despite his attempts to swat them.

🎸 The report was full of errors. “Full” didn’t even begin to describe it. The errors were flies on a feeding frenzy, devouring whatever truth might have been there, and leaving the report a husk.  

Buzzing flies is only one way to handle this dynamic. There are a million opportunities out there to use metaphors like this. 

Look for nouns that aren’t vivid enough. Either replace them with a verb or a metaphor that has the energy of a verb. 

2. Blast radius

“We should be open to the idea that we cannot control everything, and that on a daily basis there’s a ton going on that we will not know about. Someone might do something that impacts your world, and that is OK . Assuming positive intent is critical. That said, for the person running the experiment it is vital to be sympathetic to the blast radius of your work (and perception of your work). Communicate. Give people some notice.”

- John Cutler, Some MVP and Experiment Tips

John Cutler is a product evangelist at Amplitude, a company that provides product analytics. He writes about project and product management with a deep sense of empathy for how teams do work and how teams can work. 

Here, he writes about experimentation. This excerpt is balancing two points about experimentation: be open to a little chaos and be careful about the chaos you might cause. 

The tension between the two is right on the surface. 

Simply saying this isn’t enough. 

Asking people to have empathy is notoriously ineffective. To make this point vivid, Cutler uses the metaphor “blast radius.” This metaphor works because it supports the chaos he warns about previously. 

Just like a meteor or a missile has a point of impact that is known but a radius of damage that isn’t, so does an experiment have a target and a range of effects. The blast radius metaphor makes vivid the fact that having a target--and hitting it--doesn’t belie the secondary effects such an act might have. 

To riff on this metaphor, we just need to step back and think of things that have secondary effects. 

🎸 The budget cuts were severe. Management thought they could isolate the effects by laying off employees in one department, but they underestimated the blast radius of this department’s decimation. Morale dropped company-wide.

🎸 Once she hit publish, she knew Twitter would be aflame. But she cared more about the blast radius than the first impact. Her first readers would be shocked, upset, confused; the readers that came after, the ones who heard the explosion, were the ones she cared about. 

Secondary effects can be good and bad. Look for the dynamic and see if you can apply this metaphor.

3. Scouts

“These gray bristles were, he knew, the advance scouts of a relentless, wintry invasion. And there would be no stopping the march of the hours, the days, the years.”

- Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept

When Nietzsche Wept is an early 90s novel from Stanford psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom. In this short excerpt, he writes about age. 

Aging is so slow that it’s nearly imperceptible. We know what an old person looks like and what a young person looks like but describing the process between the two is difficult. 

Is it the appearance change? A shift in emotional maturity? An ache in a place that used to be pain-free?

Age is just one of those ideas that’s too big and too abstract to encompass. Instead, as Yalom does here, it’s better to evoke one aspect of it vividly enough that the rest of the concept comes with it. Here, Yalom focuses on appearance.

The metaphor is two-fold: the gray bristles become advance scouts and age becomes a wintry invasion. This metaphor is especially effective because Yalom specifies the season of the invasion, evoking the whiteness of the whiskers alongside the whiteness of snow. 

The dynamic here is of an early sign that indicates a larger change. 

Consider riffs like these:

🎸 The team was chagrined to receive its first negative review. But the comments seemed baseless, biased almost, they thought. And so they ignored it. Little did they know that this first criticism was an advance scout for an invasion of other problems. 

🎸 I’ve always been confident. In every job interview and every subsequent acceptance and promotion, I touted that as my greatest skill. I advanced fast. So fast I didn’t see the mistakes accumulating in my periphery. Before I knew it, my confidence was collapsing in an invasion of self-doubt: if only I had caught the advance scouts before it was upon me.

Don’t waste an opportunity to make your ideas vivid. 

You’re too close to your ideas when you’re thinking them through. It’s hard to know just how foreign they’ll appear to a reader who’s never thought in that way before. 

To leave an impression, try using a metaphor that makes your ideas vivid.