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Metaphors and writing for accessibility

Writing with metaphors is my default position – one of the reasons why I have an urge to write is because when I see a tree I think, oh that looks like a fossilised network of nerves, but you can’t talk like that in everyday life and keep your friends, so you have to go home and sit alone with a cup of tea and a laptop and try your best to write it down in a way that pleases you.

But metaphorical language is an abstraction – it’s not literal. And so it’s not accessible to all audiences. It’s so important in life to try to remember that our own mindset is different to other people’s. (Mrs Dalloway is a brilliant depiction of the infinite variety in internal worlds.) For instance, small children don’t think metaphorically; my six-year-old objected this morning when I said we need to keep our eyes open for any pieces that might fit when we’re doing a jigsaw. Because you can’t do a jigsaw with closed eyes. To him, my comment was hilariously inaccurate. Metaphorical thinking is a learned skill.

People who have autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are highly likely to have trouble with non-literal or figurative language too, interpreting language, as a rule, more literally and so struggling with casually metaphorical or allusive language.

That doesn’t mean that to be accessible to many people you have to be dull – you just need to be empathetic to how your words could be interpreted by someone with a different internal world. A small change – saying the trees look like frozen nervous systems rather than saying they are frozen nervous systems – can make all the difference in signalling your intent more clearly.

And what good writing isn’t clear, empathetic and generous? Our inner worlds are gloriously different – the best writing has this knowledge at its heart.

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