Metaphors and clichés: How imagery paints or taints our writing

Modern messaging relies on storytelling, and vivid language lies at the heart of the most compelling yarns. Here’s guidance on how to use playful, vibrant prose to superb effect.

Writers create word pictures, and a picture is worth a thousand words.

Imagery and clichés, such as those above, can enliven your text (or turn off readers).

How can you strike a balance, and how can you ensure that the metaphors you use or themes you adopt are consistent and fully realized—without going overboard?

First, let’s acknowledge that many sayings now deemed trite began as original insights:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

All that glitters is not gold.

“I don’t like Shakespeare,” an old joke goes. “He uses too many clichés.”

Rather than simply relying on old sayings to stand alone and do the job, a writer might pivot to a new point or understanding, such as was done (successfully, one hopes) at the beginning of this essay. With distinct purpose, the opening paragraphs challenged the comfort of familiarity as a liability, as an undercutting of originality.

Take a different tack

Another tactic for enlivening an old notion involves wordplay—a pun or some other nimble turn of phrase. Say, for instance, you were writing about social media lurkers, or those who hide behind false identities to offer their ideas. You might offer this variation on the Bard:

All who Twitter are not bold.

Granted, it’s far from brilliant, but it does show that rhyming can  twist the meaning of a well-known saying. It’s also less juvenile than this option:

A nose by another name could smell his feet.

But I digress.

Grab that ball, and shoot a home run

One needn’t visit a language lab to mix metaphors. Many’s the time that literary imagery starts rolling down the highway, hits choppy seas and ends up having to parachute before reaching the stratosphere. It’s disorienting.

Important tenets can help you keep the wheels—and rudder and wings and retro-rockets—from coming off.

If you’re using a nautical motif, stick with it. Look up terms like shoal, reef, sandbar, spinnaker, tiller and helm so you employ them precisely. (It helps to know that a boat pilot takes a new tack, not a new tact.)

Unless you’re going for humorous exaggeration, tread lightly. Absent such moderation, your prose could take on the kitschy ambience of a tacky seaside tourist trap, replete with ubiquitous lobster pots, grizzled sea captain portraits and a “salad pier”—a real-life offering that sent my father, a former naval officer, into howls of derisive laughter.

Jargon and buzzwords and snark—oh, my!

At Ragan, we strive for structural clarity and verbal precision, yet with a healthy dose of industry nomenclature, conversational tone, linguistic flair and a dash or seven of snark.

Because we curate articles from various sources, writing styles differ widely—especially in terms of industry insider lingo. As a result, we see an abundance of thought leadersdrilling down from the 10,000-foot-view to do a deep dive in a granular way so they can take whatever the hell they’re talking about to the next level.

As noted earlier, those hackneyed visuals were, at one time, original and pithy. They do not hold up as well as Shakespeare’s timeless poetry, however, so writers are encouraged to concoct fresh, vivid language to get their points across—rather than relying on the same old stucco.

Regurgitating jargon suggests a lack of originality. Beyond that, if you use tired language, you’re likely to elicit tired ideas—from your own mind, as well as from your colleagues. Stimulate all concerned with fresh, effervescent words, and watch innovation bubble to the surface.

Start with two easy targets: Instead of the overused amazing and awesome, try using these more expressive—and less expressed—adjectives: outstanding, marvelous, magnificent, superlative, jaw-dropping, head-spinning, gobsmacking, fantastic, fabulous, extraordinary, tremendous, spectacular. You can do the same with adverse terms. There are dozens in the thesaurus.

Funny thing: Horrible and horrific remain synonymous, yet terrible and terrific stand as antonyms, the latter having taken on a positive connotation. (Every modifier deserves a second chance, no?)

Double-checking meanings is crucial. Sorry to sound like a broken record on that point. (Only the resurgence of vinyl recordings keeps that reference from being archaic; it’s still a cliché.)


4 Responses to “Metaphors and clichés: How imagery paints or taints our writing”

    Lyn Branscomb says:

    Thank you for writing this. Creative and on message. Wish I could be so creative in my response. It’s a message I deliver to my college students, so I’m linking this to them!

    Christa Severns says:

    Um, Shakespeare wrote, “All that glisters..” not glitters. Author’s point about double checking stuff is a good one.

      Ted Kitterman says:

      Many modern editions of the plays have changed the original “glisters” to “glitters.” While we can lament the lost sibilance of the original, the updated word ensures modern readers achieve maximum comprehension. The modern expression derives from Shakespeare, and since Elizabethans were indifferent spellers, glitters is an appropriate emendation for our uses.

    Rob Reinalda says:

    Thanks, Ted. You’ve said it better than I might have.
    I did double-check, FYI, and because I was going with the common sayings themselves rather than the original text, I opted for “glitters.”
    Apart from scholars such as Ms. Severns, most readers would have figured “glisters” to be a typo.
    Her point is well made and well taken. — RR

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