3 Metaphors About Writing 📝

Metaphor Map #11

Hey, friend! Welcome to Metaphor Map.

This issue features metaphors from a columnist, an author, and a nonfiction writer. We’re focusing on you can use metaphors to describe writing, among other crafts.

Let’s get into it!

It’s a human instinct to want to be understood. It’s nature to want understanding so much that you’ll take pains to describe an idea in multiple ways to properly evoke it. 

Little else inspires that instinct as much as craftsmanship. From the moment a primate affixed a stone to a stick, it was likely trying to figure out how to describe the feeling of swinging the axe (or so I guess. I’m not a biologist). 

In this issue, I’m focusing on the efforts of craftspeople to describe their craft. Specifically, I’m honing in on writers describing writing. 

Metaphors are uniquely translatable. Even if you rarely write about writing, there’s a lot to learn from writers who’ve tried to do the same. 

1. Plumbing

“You are a plumber when you write. A handyman. Writing is a matter of sketching and building and arranging and fixing what is in your brain.”

- Drew Magary, How to Write 10,000 Words a Week

A craft is hard to describe because, as we got into in issue #10, reality has a surprising amount of detail. Here, GEN columnist Drew Magary compares writing to plumbing to make a point about writing really involves. 

From a distance, writing is putting pen to paper. Up close, it involves a multitude of interlocking, conflicting considerations: brainstorming, outlining, editing, thinking, researching, analyzing, etc. etc. 

It goes on and on and the fact that it goes on and on is the point. That “on and on” is where a writer, or any craftsperson makes their living. 

That’s why it’s often best to compare one craft to another. Even though there are countless surface level differences, the level of detail is fundamentally similar. 

We can riff on this and see why this format works.

🎸 You are a sculptor when you write. Writing is all about finding raw material and shaping it to the image you imagine.

🎸 You are a carpenter when you write. Bad writers write, cut, and rewrite endlessly. Good writers measure twice and cut once. 

🎸 You are a mechanic when you edit. Whatever you’ve written is vehicle enough to roll down the hill, turn, and maybe even break. But to make a truly impressive piece of machinery, you need to ensure every piece functions smoothly with the next.

Comparing one profession to another lets you go deeper than the superficial differences to see the fundamental similarities. That’s where understanding lies. 

2. Driving

“Writing is like driving the car, you go to this destination, you're on this adventure. And reading is like filling the car up with gas. And the point of having a gas is not to only fill it up with gas and stay at the station, you have to drive somewhere and go on an adventure at some point. But you do need to stop and refill now and then. If I struggle, and don't have more to write about, then I need to read more. I need to fill up the tank.”

- James Clear, #2: James Clear [Revision]

This metaphor (a simile, technically) is from habit expert and author James Clear. He was a guest on an episode of Creative Elements, a podcast from Jay Clouse. Together, they discussed Clear’s career and the efforts he went to develop an audience and an expert niche.

This is a plainspoken simile (partially due to the speaking format). But its plainspoken simplicity gives it a clarity that many overwritten, overanalyzed metaphors lack. 

Writing is like driving the car. How? Well, it’s a journey. But to make that journey, you need gas: reading. 

Driving is an action anyone can imagine and driving, the act of moving and recovering, is a dynamic anyone can understand. 

The metaphor works because it maps onto that dynamic. It works well because writing is an activity that embodies that dynamic, that requires action, depletion, and action again. 

Consider these riffs:

🎸 Collaborating is like driving the car. You’re driving the conversation forward and carrying all your passengers with you. But silent, individual contemplation is the fuel. Without it, you won’t have anything to talk about.

🎸 Painting is like driving the car. You’re in control of the brush, its direction, and its movement. But appreciating other artists, that’s your fuel. Your store of inspiration will deplete without occasionally feeling wonder at what someone else made. 

You can reuse this metaphor if you find patterns like it. Almost any craft will require action and recovery by way of inspiration. 

3. Static electricity

“A single crowded sentence means giving up all the possible relations 

Among shorter sentences—the friction, the tension, 

The static electricity that builds up between them.”

- Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing

In his seminal book Several Short Sentences About Writing, American nonfiction author Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about… writing. But the whole book is shot through with the sense that he could fill hundreds more pages with his opinions, analyses, and conclusions.

In this excerpt, he disassembles overly complex sentences. 

Short sentences, according to him, generate an energy akin to static electricity. Ideas, close together, produce friction. Short, powerful sentences swell with that potential energy. The reader reveals and revels in it. 

Long sentences, however, unspool these ideas and let filler leak in. They’re weak, like a boat taking on the water that surrounds it. 

This metaphor works because Klinkenborg evokes something that typically goes unsaid, if not un-thought. 

Good writing feels different from bad writing. Tight writing has something behind it that loose writing doesn’t. Klinkenborg makes that truth visible through metaphor. 

The energy we feel becomes static electricity generated by the friction of short sentences packed with ideas. He encapsulates his point in a vivid image that makes his point more compelling, more memorable, and more believable. 

Every communicator and every professional has cause to describe what they do. The better you can do that, the better you can set your ideas in a context that makes them succeed. 

What you do doesn’t fully describe what you do. Compare the actions you take to things people understand. There’s power in mutual understanding.