Using Metaphors to Enhance Your Writing

using metaphors

Using metaphors to enhance your writing.
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: franzi ♥ PHOTOS on Flickr.

A while back, I wrote a piece that had nothing to do with food, but food became a running metaphor while I was revising. The food metaphor was so delicious (or maybe I was so hungry) that I rewrote the entire post with food on the brain.

The blog posts I write with metaphors always get a lot of positive feedback; everyone seems to embrace them. Metaphors are clearly useful for enticing readers.

So what makes metaphors work?

What Are Metaphors?

A metaphor is a literary device in which we say one thing is another thing. But metaphors aren’t meant to be taken literally. When I say, “He’s a dormant volcano” you know I’m speaking figuratively. He’s not actually a volcano; what I’m saying is that he’s got a latent temper.

Why Are Metaphors So Effective?

Metaphors often engage our senses by connecting an otherwise intangible subject to sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste. If you can engage any of these senses through metaphor, your writing will become more vivid, entertaining and memorable; it will be easier for readers to relate to what you’re saying, because they can experience it viscerally.

Metaphors also simplify complex concepts, making them easier to understand and digest. I can spend a full paragraph using detailed, literal descriptions of a character. Or I can tell you that the character is a rat, and looks like one too. In just a few words, I’ve conveyed a lot about the character’s looks and personality. Without the metaphor, it might have taken a lot more time to describe this character.

When Are Metaphors Ineffective?

Ineffective metaphors rely on clichés to communicate an idea: he’s a rock, she’s a breath of fresh air. These are figures of speech (metaphors) that have been around for a long time and made their way into casual usage. They work well in regular conversation, but can feel stale in a work of poetry or fiction.

Metaphors also need to be clear. We don’t want the reader pausing to process a metaphor and wonder what it means.

Finally, metaphors should be somewhat sparse and shouldn’t be mixed. If you’ve got a running food metaphor, don’t mix it with metaphors about the weather. Keep it simple to avoid cluttering up your writing and confusing readers.

Experiment with Using Metaphors

Here’s an experiment you can do to explore using metaphors in a piece of writing:


Make a list of twenty-five things. They can be people, places, objects, and topics for discussion. For each item on the list, come up with a single metaphor that could represent it. Be open-minded as you work through the list. For example, one of your items might be child. If you come up with munchkin as a metaphor, you’ll discover that the child has taken on personality and specific features. Let the items on your list inspire the metaphors, but then let the metaphors influence the items in return.

Use Metaphors Wisely!

If you decide to experiment with using metaphors in your writing, come back here and tell us about it!

How often do you use metaphors in your writing? Have they improved your writing? What have you learned about using metaphors? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


20 Responses to “Using Metaphors to Enhance Your Writing”

  1. Karen Swim says:

    Melissa, what a great point! Visual metaphors are a common persuasion tactic. Applying the same tactic to other forms of writing has a similar impact. I never consciously thought about that until your post. We want to draw readers in whether we’re writing a poem, blog post, short story, or marketing messages. We want them to feel, and act. When working on jobs for clients I am innately aware of this fact but seem to forget it when writing for myself. Thanks for the excellent tip!

  2. Deb says:

    I have done some pieces in the past using metaphor but I think I tend to make it do too much. It’s like my imagination is on speed or something. So I have sort of forbidden myself to do for a while now. Maybe it works best if the piece is in one form and the metaphor slant is introduced in a rewrite? It’s worth contemplating because I think it could be a useful tool to navigate difficult topics. At least that the reason I used it in the past.

  3. @Karen: The metaphor really jumps out at the reader. I think it’s useful for otherwise dry, boring pieces and helps to make them more palatable. I forget to use metaphors too, so this was a good reminder for me.

    @Deb (gscottage): I think any way that the metaphor finds its way into your writing is fine (rewrite or otherwise). I’ve incorporated metaphor during the rewrite and the first draft and haven’t found one way to be better than the other. There is something to be said about spontaneity though. A forced metaphor can be obvious.

  4. Ellen Wilson says:

    I automatically think in symbols and metaphors so this isn’t a problem for me. This is a great subject, though, Melissa, because I do think that our minds generate many associations through the use of metaphor. Metaphor and symbol tend to link everything together.

    My problem is linearity. I write a lot of articles and it is more of a struggle to me than writing fiction. If I do a good job there is a certain high in completing a well crafted piece.

  5. Friar says:

    Ellen gave me sh*t on Brett’s blog, implying I dont’ know what a metaphor is. She said I should come here and read your post. So here I am.

    A metaphor has something to do with moons and balloons, right, Ellen? 🙂

    Actually, I DO know what a metaphor is…I’m trying put a few in my writing (I hope!)

    I like the gentle reminders you write, Melissa. You make sure we stay honest and don’t forget our English lessons.

  6. @Ellen: That’s a good point and one I hadn’t really considered — the idea that symbols resonate so strongly. In either case, it boils down to the strength of an image or sensation and the impact that has on a reader.

    @Friar: Hello there! Glad you could stop by. You’re right, we mustn’t forget our English lessons. After all, that’s where we learn all the rules that we are destined to break.

  7. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Friar – Moons and balloons? Wha?! Just trying to give you a little help. Jumping in a cold lake is to real. Now you can get all warm and fuzzy and metaphorical. Well, metaphores don’t have to be warm and fuzzy. They can be quite stark and naked. Maybe that flower is getting to me. Anyway, this is a good post!

    @Melissa – I think we all connect to certain primal symbols, what Carl Jung called archetypes. We understand these symbols at a deep unconscious level. I thought of doing a post on that someday.

  8. Ellen Wilson says:

    Man, I’m making all kinds of stupid mistakes on posts today – like to instead of too, their when I should use they’re. Damn. Oh, well, I’m human and I’m tired! E

  9. @Ellen: I couldn’t agree more with you regarding the power of archetypes and primal symbols. I hope you do write a post about that topic, which has always fascinated me. I’ll be looking forward to it! And on those silly little mistakes…no worries! We’ve all been there. I recently made one in a blog post title for shame! Ugh.

  10. Friar says:


    If I had an English teacher as interesting as you in High School (instead of the dill-weed who taught me), I would have ended up embracing literature and English, instead of hating it.

    Mabye there’s still hope for me yet.

  11. @Friar: Aw, you’re too kind! I thought about becoming an English teacher. I wanted to teach at the college level (creative writing) but I’m not big on public speaking. Thank you.

  12. Friar says:


    I looked into teaching college a few years back. They would only hire part-time. It paid 25 bucks an hour ,but they would only pay you for the 4-6 hours a week you actually lectured! (You wouldn’t even get Prep Time).

    Ouch. I didnt’ feel like living off $150 a week. So I ended up at the Widget Factory.

  13. @Friar: That’s a shame and surprising that they wouldn’t compensate for prep time, which is probably where teachers do most of their work!

  14. Ellen Wilson says:

    It’s never too late! If you want to teach creative writing at the college level it is possible, competitive, but possible. I have noticed there are a huge glut of MFAers out there. Often, they don’t stick with it though, and get jobs in realestate or something. It takes a lot of discipline to write and teach. As you know.
    @Friar – They only give you prep time in high school. You get 1 hour.

  15. @Ellen: It takes a lot of discipline to write and freelance too! I like the idea of teaching, but I’m not a big fan of public speaking. In fact, I have less than zero desire to stand up and speak in front of a crowd (even a small one that fits inside a classroom). I can dance in front of the world, but my tongue is tied!

  16. MIchele says:

    This is a great post, Melissa, and like the others, I’ve often thought you’d make a great English teacher. Well, really you are! You teach your readers so much here, at Writing Forward. Who knows, maybe in 20 years you’ll take college creative writing classes by storm, hardly taking a breath! I’d love to be in your creative writing class. 😉

    And, if that doesn’t happen… just write us a book! 🙂


  17. @Michele: Well that is a huge compliment! I am not out to teach as much as I am trying to share my experiences, hoping they can help someone. A book does sound like a fun project. If only I had the time…well, like you said, maybe in 20 years.

  18. Michele says:

    You’re welcome. 😉 Well, I think sharing our experiences actually does teach, don’t you? I love to learn and glean from those around me. And, I hope I can offer something for someone else to glean from as well. 🙂

    The book… the time… Well, 20 years was off the top of my head–about getting up the nerve to teach. I hope it doesn’t have to actually be that long before we can read a book of yours!


  19. Debra L. Butterfield says:

    Melissa, I agree. Metaphors enhance my reading experiences, but I do struggle to find the right ones when I’m writing. After NaNoWriMo I’m going to give your writing exercise a try.

    I would also like to say I’ve read books where metaphors and similes were used so often they nauseated me, instead of exciting me.