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Tone it down a little, would you?

A colleague at Testy Copy Editors asked for advice on how to deal with a writer who persists in using extended metaphors, sometimes for the entire length of a story.

When John Updike died, the commentaries invariably mentioned his fondness for lush language, not always approvingly. Metaphor and other ornamental language can make an article more vivid, pointed and arresting. But if even a writer as accomplished as Updike can fall victim to his own excesses, the rest of us would do well to observe a little judicious restraint.

In journalism, metaphor usually has the greatest effect when the writer hits it once, giving the reader a fresh image, and then moves on. An example from The Sun’s Frank Roylance:

Capturing data on the most powerful and mysterious explosion in the universe is a bit like swatting flies. The blasts, called gamma ray bursts, are usually too quick.

You’ll notice how this works: the arcane scientific task linked to a familiar domestic activity and the parallelism of gamma bursts/flies and catching/swatting. This is not the kind of metaphor that Dr. Johnson objected to in the Metaphysical poets, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together. ...” Instead, one thing clarifies the other to introduce the subject, and the writer drops the metaphor to proceed.

Extending metaphors runs serious risks. Extended metaphor begins to look like allegory, with every element pressed to fit into an overall pattern. If you remember the opening of Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 parody of historical films, there is a text on the screen that runs something like this: France! 1789! The fire of oppression was heating the kettle of poverty until the soup of resentment boiled over in revolution and stained the kitchen floor of history.

Trying to do this straight can produce unintended comedy: On misty days the sky and water marry on Prince William Sound, a ceremony overseen by the bridesmaids of jeweled mountains. I think I see the sun, the father of the bride, over the horizon arguing with the caterer.

Even if bathos is not the result, reliance on extended metaphor in article after article will become, like overuse of any other gimmick, predictable and tiresome.

And finally, as my former colleague Wayne Countryman observed for the Testyfiers, the kind of writing that calls more attention to the writer than to the subject — look at me; I can write up a storm — is more apt to weary the reader than to please.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (3)


Ah, the "misty days" example.
That handout from your class remains one of the things I introduce to new copy editors at my paper. They usually don't believe someone would actually write that way.

The quote, via IMDB: "Paris, France, 1789. Thirty years later, under the reign of Louis XVI, longstanding grievances between aristocrat and peasant were about to boil over. The pot in which these troubles boiled was kindled with the firewood of oppression and injustice and heated by the flames that sucked the air from gasping peasants. Would the pot cool off, would it merely simmer, or would it boil over in the kitchen of France -- to stain the floor of history forever?"

Classic McIntyre. Your Copyediting class continues to be one of the better classes I have ever taken.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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