Block that metaphor
Writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work.
Nowhere do lapses in judgment become more apparent than in the use of metaphor. Everyone prefers vivid writing, and everyone knows that literary tropes can be wielded effectively to sharpen a point or illuminate a concept. But it is very easy to go awry.
Dead metaphors, for example, can be particularly treacherous. The language is full of expressions that were originally metaphoric but have been worn so smooth by repetition that they go unrecognized as such. That is why free rein, a metaphor from horseback riding, often turns up as free reign.
Failure to associate a stock expression with its original sense can lead to jarring incongruities, such as this one:
They’ll be shaking and rattling, rocking and rolling, but it will all be for a good cause as the annual [Placename] radiothon for cerebral palsy kicks into high gear.
Excessive enthusiasm for metaphor, combined with inattention, yields mixed metaphors, as in this opening paragraph to a business story:
The world’s largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation’s food industry.
Let’s do a metaphor census. The world’s largest spice producer:
1. Wears armor.
2. Sits down.
3. At an athletic competition (sidelines).
4. Exposed to nuclear radiation (fallout).
5. During a street brawl (free-for-all).
If you are a typical reader, you are so distracted by this piling-up of inconsistent images that you have no idea what the meaning of the sentence is. If you as a writer want to use a metaphor, hit it once, briefly, and move on.
Finally, there is the metaphor that is grotesquely inappropriate:
If [Firstname Lastname] wanted to walk from the chocolate shop where she works to grab coffee at a McDonald’s in [Placename], she would have to cross a 10-foot-wide drainage ditch, four lanes of traffic, a median strip, then four more lanes of cars. So she drives instead.
But like well-fed thighs stuffed into too-tight pants, the road needs room to spread.
The author stubbornly insisted on retaining the simile when the copy editor questioned it. After all, it was a product of the writer’s imagination and originality; the copy desk was once again trying to drain the life from the story. And the assigning editor sided with the author. (Too often the assigning editor, rather than serving as an editor for the writer, acts as a lobbyist for the writer.)
In this case, I jumped a couple of layers of authority and went straight to the editor of the newspaper, who, after uttering a sentence even more offensive than the one in the article, ordered the passage excised.
Two pieces of advice:
1. Visualize what a depiction of your metaphor would look like. Is that what you want?
2. Get yourself an editor — or someone you trust to be both knowledgeable and honest — to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Follow the advice.