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How to create precise metaphors

A small cruise ship makes passage through the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica

It’s good to be scared of using adjectives and metaphors; it means you’re worried about being a terrible writer. But doing it well isn’t just down to whether you’re a natural poet or not – there are logical rules you can follow.

Always look for the most precise way to describe something – that will help you avoid cliches. Never tell people to imagine something. Write in a way that helps them imagine it instead. (And don’t tell them something is wonderful, show them why you think it is.)

Instead of saying,

Imagine bombs raining down on you.

You could say,

Bombs rained down.

If you can think of a fresher word than rained, substitute it. Bombs do come down from the sky, so rain is an accurate analogy, but is there something that sounds less drenching and cool and more violent and fiery, while maintaining the sense of repetitiveness?

Bombs hammered the city.

That could still be improved, but it’s moving in the right direction.

Elevate your metaphors to the next level by finding a way to refer to more than one quality with a single image. That, in the simplest way, helps your reader see something in a completely new way. Glaciers are huge, but also awe-inspiring, beautiful and majestic – why compare them to a building, when you can compare them to a cathedral?

 On either side of the fjord, mountains rise to pinnacles of 6,000 feet. They look as lifeless as cathedral spires, but I know now there are plants on their lower slopes, leading fugitive lives – animals, too.

(Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines)

Demonstrate why something is fascinating, while staying precise and authoritative. If the fact itself is fresh and interesting, you don’t need hyperbole.

There was a time—until very recently in the scheme of things—when there were no wild animals, because every animal was wild.

(Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines)

Kathleen Jamie really is a wonderful writer. Reading her will make you feel you have a lot to learn, but it’s still worth doing.

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