How can analogies help your writing become more effective?

Using an analogy — comparing one thing to another — can be a powerful way to make a point. It can provide clarity for your audience by linking what you’re writing about with something more familiar.

In this post, I’m going to use three analogies for writing itself. I hope that reading these analogies will give you insights into the writing process and how to approach your next projects.

Writing is like chess

I know how to play chess. I also play chess very badly. I know how the pieces move, but I don’t know enough patterns to know what’s the best move given the current position of all the pieces on the board. Or even all my options  for good moves at that point.

In writing, the equivalent of knowing the moves is knowing the basics of grammar and spelling. How to construct and punctuate sentences and write paragraphs. The difference between too, to and two. What form of verb to use. The next level — the equivalent of knowing patterns of play — is about having a wider vocabulary, so you can always pick the best word, and how to combine sentences and rhetorical tricks to create the reaction you want in your audience.

The good news about both chess and writing is that you can get better at both of them, by learning new things and by practising. While skilled, fast writers who are “naturals” are as rare as chess grandmasters, most people can reach the level of a competent club player in their writing. 

Writing is like sculpture

Writer Joan Didion once said that “Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.”

This analogy touches on two aspects of writing. The first is that all writing is about the process of selection: choosing what to include and what to leave out. You may have 15 ideas to include in a blog post, but your audience may not be willing to stick with you for that long. So you need to choose the best five. Or you may be able to talk in depth about five points, but you need to focus on writing just one paragraph about each of them that covers the key points.

The second way writing is like sculpture is that the end result should be the right shape. You (probably) wouldn’t want to create a sculpture of a person where you’ve left a big bulge of stone or clay on one side of their head. Or a sculpture that constantly falls over because it’s unbalanced. In the same way, during the editing process, you need to make sure that you’ve cut out any unnecessary sentences (the “bulges”) and that the whole thing is evenly paced (the “balance”), so readers don’t feel like you’ve rushed through some parts and dragged out others.

Writing is like doing jigsaw puzzles

Most people approach jigsaw puzzles with a strategy. Maybe they sort out all the edge pieces and complete the edges first. Maybe they group pieces by colour or content, so they have all the pieces of sky together, or all the pieces showing flowers if it’s a garden scene. They may work on one part of the jigsaw that’s very distinctive, so it’s easy to find the pieces and fit them together, and then work their way slowly out from that. It’s a “divide and conquer” approach to solving the puzzle.

With writing, you can also adopt “divide and conquer” strategies that make it easier. For example, writing factual content about your area of expertise — something you know well — is like finding the edge pieces: easy to identify and relatively easy to put together. On the other hand, writing headlines, subheadings and captions is a lot more like working on a patch of sky: you may have to take a brute force option of trying lots of different options before you find the one that fits. Being aware that not all content is equally difficult to write — just as some parts of a jigsaw are easier than others — can help you figure out how to divide it into elements that you can tackle one by one and in what order you should work through them.

I hope these analogies give you some insights into your own writing process and how you can improve it.

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