Sweeten Your Writing with Metaphors

One of the challenges of being a professional writer is to think metaphorically—to describe an item in terms of something else, so that readers make an association that clarifies, enlightens and perhaps also entertains.  Metaphorical thinking can be learned and is a great memory aid. Food metaphors often occur to me when describing plants.

For example, matilija poppies, which have white, crepe-paper petals surrounding yellow centers, suggest sunny-side-up eggs.

Now, for your edification and amusement, I offer a few candy plants.  The common name of Sedum rubrotinctum in the first photo is pork-and-beans, but I’ve always thought it should be jelly beans.

The metaphor that first comes to mind for any fine-textured, ornamental grass is hair. But if I expend a few more brain cells, I come up with cotton candy.

This bromeliad flower suggests the Halloween treat, candy corn.

This fat-leaved succulent is Pachyphytum oviferum. The genus is derived from the Latin for elephant; the species, for egg. The common name is moon stones, which is not bad, but not strongly visual, either. Were it up to me, I’d call the plant Jordan almonds (a candy used as wedding favors).

Let’s say we used “pink bubble gum” instead to describe the Jordan almonds plant. But in the same article we need a metaphor for this bromeliad flower, and it looks like pink bubblegum, too. How do you come up with something new?

One secret to thinking metaphorically is to ask yourself:  “If I didn’t know what it is, what would I think it was?” That overides your left brain’s tendency to label things, and allows your right brain’s creativity to kick in.

Avoid adjectives such as “lovely,” “pretty,” “gorgeous,” “attractive,” etc. They’re throw-away words that don’t convey anything other than your opinion. Words like “large” and “small” don’t belong in descriptions, either, unless you give dimensions or are comparing one thing to another. The most annoying adjective is “unique,” because things seldom are.

Really think about what you’re seeing. Notice details. Here’s what I came up with for the bromeliad flower:  Barbie-doll-pink petals, each as flat as a stick of chewing gum, have sections that create a chevron pattern.

The flower spires of Echium fastuosum (Pride of Madeira) are conical grapesicles.

Vivid, orange-red petals of Erythrina x sykesii (Australian coral tree) are canoe-shaped Hot Tamales.

A red-tipped kalanchoe’s plump leaves appear sugar-coated.

When I wrote about ‘Flower Girl’ rose for Sunset, I described the clusters as “billowing” and “cream-colored.” They also look like popcorn, but I didn’t go there. A good metaphor doesn’t call too much attention to itself. To do so is to remind the reader he’s reading, and you want him to stay in the experience. So if an editor tells you your writing is “overworked,” that may be what she’s referring to.

‘Flower Girl’ is massed with billowing bouquets of pink-blushed, popcorn blooms. Well, that’s not terrible, but I think it works better without “popcorn.” Sometimes you need to remove one piece of verbal jewelry.

Here’s the description from this rose’s online supplier: “Grace your garden with elegant peppermint-stick red blossoms streaked with creamy white and exuding a scent too sweet for words.” Too sweet for words? What a waste of words! To be fair, though, scent is difficult to describe. But each word needs to work, or it’s a waste of space and the reader’s time. A possible edit: Sweet-scented ‘Candy Stripe’ rose is peppermint pink, red and creamy white. My version is 12 words; the original, 20.

Mm. This translucent epiphyllum flower glistens like peach sherbet.

Ranunculus: Fields of floral lollipops, in Carlsbad, CA.

And you didn’t think I’d forget chocolate, did you?

About Debra Lee Baldwin

Debra Lee Baldwin gardens on "an inhospitable half acre" in Escondido, CA, near San Diego. She is an award-winning photojournalist and artist with hundreds of articles and columns to her credit. Debra's books are Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens and Succulents Simplified. www.debraleebaldwin.com.

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22 Responses to Sweeten Your Writing with Metaphors

  1. Elephant's Eye September 5, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    I got hung up on the Barbie pink zipper!

    Tsk! I’m not touching that one, lol. — Debra

  2. professorroush September 5, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    Wow. What a great post on improving our writing! Makes me want to go and write a blog post today using a metaphor (it’ll happen, I’m sure). Thanks for the thought.

    Hi, Professor — I just remembered that I used to ask my son when he was little, “if you didn’t know what that was, what would you think it might be?” I was amazed to hear some of the things he came up with. My favorite was an opalescent sky at sunset: “Like the surface of a swimming pool, when you’re underwater, looking up.” — Debra

  3. Dorothy/Gardening with Nature September 5, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    Excellent and very helpful post. I’m definitely going to try for more “metaphorical thinking.”

    I’m glad you found it helpful, Dorothy. Thanks for commenting! Debra

  4. Nicole September 5, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Debra-I thought “Jordan almonds” also just before I read it. Luscious pictures, aren’t we so lucky to have such a great variety of plants available to anyone, now?

    Thanks, Nicole. Very cool you thought of Jordan almonds. As for variety, I agree! Debra

  5. Penny Carnathan September 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    It’s fun to see the photo, think what I’d do with it, and read what you came up with. Describing in fresh ways is always a challenge — thank goodness the plant world gives us lots to work with.

    Hi, Penny — I’m reminded of a food blogger friend of mine who never seems to run out of ways to describe flavors, textures and the way a dish looks. She told me she automatically discards the first phrase that comes to mind, because she’s probably already used it. Debra

  6. Town Mouse September 5, 2010 at 2:11 pm #

    Thanks, I needed that. Great advice!

    Hi, Ms. Mouse — I tried to come up with some plants for you that look like cheese, but drew a blank. Debra

  7. Donna September 5, 2010 at 5:07 pm #

    Great post. Loved the descriptions and metaphors.
    I will take your advice and gorgeous photos BTW.

    Thanks, Donna! Debra

  8. Loree / danger garden September 6, 2010 at 12:29 am #

    Thank you Debra…very good tips that I will definitely try to remember.

    Hi, Loree — You’re amazing regardless, Loree. I’m awed by how you grow so many kinds of succulents in Portland! Debra

  9. Pam/Digging September 6, 2010 at 1:17 am #

    This post made me hungry.

    Thanks for the helpful advice. But you didn’t mention using lots of exclamation points. That’s OK, isn’t it?

    ;-)

    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Debra

  10. Les September 6, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    This reminds me of Dan Heims of Terra Nova who frequently names new plants with food or drink in mind. It makes it easy for me to remember names. Thank you for the hints.

    Hi, Les — You’re welcome. I’m a huge fan of Dan and Terra Nova, btw. Next time I browse their catalog, I’ll think of your comment. — Debra

  11. healingmagichands September 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    This is an interesting post with some great ideas. As a person who has recently struggled to lose over 40 pounds, though, all the food imagery involving sugar and candy is a little much. But on the other hand, the words do bring strong images to mind.

    Excuse me while I go eat something sweet.

    LOL. I’ve found food metaphors do come more readily when I’m hungry. Debra

  12. Missy September 6, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    Great advice. thank you. Now for putting your advice into practice…..

    Hi, Missy — And “practice” is what it takes. ;+) Debra

  13. Rebecca Sweet September 7, 2010 at 9:34 am #

    Great post, Debra! Thank you so much for sharing these ‘pearls’ (I’m sure once our manuscript comes back to us, we’ll have the chance to ‘gussy it up’ a bit more by removing our 25 ‘gorgeous’ descriptions!!).

    I’m guilty of it myself, Rebecca. Actually, “lovely” is my latest Waterloo. And I’m embarrassed at how many times I used the word “stunning” in Designing with Succulents. I think I used it maybe twice in the sequel, Succulent Container Gardens, and even that seemed like an indulgence. — Debra

  14. Benjamin September 7, 2010 at 1:44 pm #

    When I teach metaphor to my college students, I have them practice writing descriptively, overly descriptive, using all 5 senses. Then we go through and hack out EVERY last adjective and piece out images that are abstract or vague and make them as small and specific as possible. I am anal and demanding. But metaphors spring up much to everyone’s surprise in thsi process, and their thinking then while doing other writing projects becomes deeper and wider by the end of the term!

    Hi, Benjamin — I like the idea of giving yourself permission to go overboard, then editing the excess. I can’t wait to try it. Thanks very much for sharing a writing professor’s secret! — Debra

  15. Mr. McGregor's Daughter September 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    The last shot looks more like licorice to me. ;^) Metaphors are the icing on the cake of the post. Or the bbq sauce on the meat of the text. (Maybe I should just skip the food metaphors.)

    Ha! Yes, definitely the BBQ sauce. — Debra

  16. Germi September 7, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    NOW you tell me!!!

    Could you BE more generous, Debra? I think not! This is an important primer for garden writers, because the spirit and essence of any garden is so notoriously hard to capture. Descriptive language can be SO dangerous (we don’t want to get too florid – oops, a pun!), but the way you have walked us through the process of metaphorical thinking keeps it grounded in the real, not the fancy-schmancy. Canoe-shaped hot tamales! YES!!!
    This is why you are ADORED!

    Aw, shucks, Germi, you’ll have me as red as a beet. (Oh, dear, dreadful pun.) — Debra

  17. Patsy Bell Hobson September 7, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    This was very helpful. Thank you

    My pleasure, Patsy! — Debra

  18. Jan (Thanks For Today) September 7, 2010 at 7:48 pm #

    Helpful advice! Thank you.

    Hi, Jan — Glad you found it useful! — Debra

  19. Andrea September 8, 2010 at 5:19 am #

    Great post, great suggestions from a professional. But even if i did not read the texts, your photos convey a lot, more than the thousand words!

    Hi, Andrea — Thank you! Indeed, it was a lot of fun selecting photos for this post. — Debra

  20. Lynn September 8, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    I love your metaphors Debra, and it is fitting that you should write about them. This was one of my favorite lines from an interview with you for the summer article in Coastal Home: “Aloes pierce the sky like exotic torchbearers, hot orange against cool blue, while agaves spread like squids, or explode upwards like fistfuls of knives.” I envy you your ability to write with such vivid imagery. Thank you. Best, Lynn

    Hey, Lynn — Thanks! Succulents do lend themselves to great metaphors. — Debra

  21. Daffodil Planter September 8, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    Solid-gold post! Thank you!

    Edible gold, DP? Or butterscotch? ;+) — Debra

  22. ESP September 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm #

    Hi Debra.
    I read this and thought I would share with you a collection of my own visual metaphors…I also have some sunny-side-up eggs thrown in there for good measure!
    Enjoy…
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_oC92ZEh1U

    Ooh! So clever! Love the stained glass, ET, the penguins…one after another, all amazing. I bow to the master. — Debra