When I help students develop their writing, I scour their articles and stories for interesting ideas, and encourage, “Tell more here.”
“I just can’t put it into words,” they often say.
I’m not known for letting them off easy. “We’re in a writing class. Putting it into words is what we’re here to do.”
Sometimes, with more effort, they put a striking idea into apt words.
Sometimes, they’re stumped and that’s when I invite them to consider the possibilities and potential of using figurative language—patterns that use words to communicate more than literal meaning.
Beginning writers use figurative language accidentally and haphazardly. Recently, as I read a student’s message, I noticed a metaphor. She summarized the reasons for her career choice in the following words, “so those are the ideas that drove the nail in the coffin.” She didn’t plan to be a funeral director. Or a carpenter. She planned to be a nurse.
In contrast to that puzzling use of metaphor, practiced writers intentionally use figurative language to add impact or life to an important idea.
Writers have been using figurative language for centuries. The ancient Greeks identified and named more than 200 types of figures of speech. We still use many of them. While many figures are commonly recognized today, let’s concentrate on metaphors.
Bible writers use figurative comparisons throughout the Scripture. Often, we neglect or misinterpret them. Sometimes, in Bible study people bristle at the suggestion that wording might be figurative—as if that makes the writing less inspired.
The neglect and misinterpretation is sad because the figures clue us in to what the writer considered really important. Paying attention to the figurative language helps us imagine and meditate. The more we study the figurative comparisons; the more we learn.
They alert and connect us to the emotion the writer worked to express. While not true to literal fact, metaphors are true to feeling! For example, I have recently been considering the location described in Psalm 81:7. The writer says God answered prayer in the hiding place of thunder. Think of the stress that prompted the writer to feel he cried for help from the hiding place of thunder.
In my mind, thunder’s hiding place rocks with uncertainty and reverberates with hostile noise.
God didn’t wait for the writer to move to a place of solitude and reverent quiet. God entered the fray and answered the writer’s plea for help. Think of the relief.
As communicators, we can learn from the Bible writers. We don’t have to reach far for content for our figurative comparisons. Most the metaphors in Scripture talk of common things like fences, cups, bread and trees.
Readers are surprised and delighted to learn that two apparently unrelated entities share a feature. (A lion used in the Bible to represent both God and the devil.)
When you can’t put your ideas into words and reach for figurative language, consider the following:
Be intentional. Choose to emphasize the important points with a figure of speech. Using a metaphor, no matter how clever, to express an idea that’s not important will distract the reader from your focus.
Avoid cliché. We can all list a number of clichéd metaphors. For example: We’re in the same boat. Or that skill is in my wheelhouse. Clichéd phrases become clichéd because the wording was once a creative, suitable way to express an idea. However, not everyone understands these overused phrases and usually the over familiar wording causes readers to gloss over a point, rather than concentrate on its meaning.
Give yourself time to think creatively and develop the metaphor: I recently read a vivid student-written metaphor. He wrote to his parents about changing his major, “I know you want me to spend my life as an accountant where I’ll sit at a computer crunching numbers until my fingers slowly decay into ancient pieces of driftwood clanking against the keys.”
There’s energy in that metaphor because the words create a vivid, startling picture. But think past that vivid picture and the comparison is a little puzzling. Just how are the fingers like driftwood?
In creating a metaphor, determine how the compared items are similar and then focus on wording that communicates that idea.
Be patient with attempts. Leland Ryken, a scholar who has written extensively on the Bible’s figurative language, says that when it comes to similes and metaphors, writers don’t create them. We discover them. Discovery takes time.
Question: What’s your best tip for finding the right words to use in your written projects?
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