Wick Communications

Simile and the whole world similes with you

In Writing, Writing techniques on 1 Oct 2010 at 8:15 am

In addition to using “like” and “as” as verbal placeholders, as the talented Miss Upton did, you can also use them correctly, as connectors in similes. (In fact, if you see those words in some kind of comparison you are probably looking a simile dead in the eye.)

A simile, of course, is a comparison of two things that may not be alike in many ways but are similar in one notable way. Why do some similes work while others just look weird? Perhaps an example is in order…

I’m a huge fan of Jason Gay’s sports columns in the Wall Street Journal. Good sportswriting is very often about everything but sports, and Gay writes sports for what it is – a cultural phenomena as much as athletic pursuit. You have to be careful with using sports as metaphor for life, but the opportunity for simile are ripe.

This is a Gay piece on the Dallas Cowboys from earlier this week. And here are a couple of similes that really sing:

  • The Cowboys can feel forced upon you from an early age, like vegetables, swimming lessons and Katy Perry.
  • They provoke only sharp opinions, like destination weddings and baby yoga.

Look, if you are rolling your eyes, you probably just aren’t a fan of similes. But if you are like me, you wish you had tossed off those lines at the tailgater.

Those two examples have one thing in common: they are topical. You have to have a pretty keen since of what’s going on in modern culture to compare the draw of the Cowboys to Katy Perry, destination weddings and baby yoga. But these are things that are in the news, that common readers of the Wall Street Journal will know. And Gay comes off sounding fresh, smart and very readable.

The opposite can also be true – and Gay makes that mistake in this very story. Here’s a simile that didn’t work as well. The problem, I think, is that he went too deep into his literary storeroom:

Of course, the rest of the nation—or, perhaps, most of it—was laughing at the Cowboys, hoping they’d plunge to 0-16 and owner Jerry Jones would be found, like Dickens’s Miss Havisham, wandering his $1.1 billion stadium barefoot in tailored Neiman Marcus pajamas, muttering gibberish about Tex Schramm and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

I think it’s a mistake to assume most readers will conjure a useable image when you compare someone with “Dickens’s Miss Havisham.” Keep your similes topical and in the mainstream and you will delight readers with something we can all understand.

Clay

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