Give yourself credit.
You’re a solid writer with good ideas.
But… you feel like you’ve reached a plateau.
People like your writing, but they don’t love it.
They find your content useful, but not essential.
Even your best ideas never seem to catch fire.
And you can’t help wondering why.
Maybe you just have to be patient and wait for your audience to come around.
But then again, maybe it’s not that. Maybe your writing is missing something.
Because when you read the work of your favorite writers, their ideas are so clear, so vivid, so damn easy-to-understand that they light up your brain.
And while you hope your readers feel the same about your writing, you secretly suspect they don’t.
Here’s the difficult truth – you’re probably right. Your writing is missing something.
And it could well be this…
The Writing “Power Tool” You’re Too Afraid to Use
The fully rounded writer has a myriad of tools in his or her toolbox.
Some of these are like hand tools, like a chisel. Others are like power tools, like an electric drill.
And here’s the thing about power tools. At first, they can be a little scary to use. (You may even have one or two in your garage you’re too afraid to unbox!)
You’re not sure how to hold them properly. You don’t understand what all the attachments do. Sometimes you don’t even know how to switch them on.
But in the right hands, boy, do they get results.
And one of the least used and least understood power tools for writers is the analogy.
Here’s the dictionary definition:
a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.
Or, more informally:
When talking about Thing X, you also mention (seemingly unconnected) Thing Y because it has useful similarities.
We use analogies a ton on Smart Blogger. Here are just a few:
- Tweaking your blog’s topic is like tuning an old-fashioned radio.
- Finding time to write is like packing a suitcase.
- Staying in a job you hate is like being a fish that’s suffocating out of water.
- Publishing content over the holiday is like teaching a toddler to swim during a hurricane.
- Reading a blog that’s useful but lacking personality is like shopping at Walmart.
- Blogging before you have an audience is like teaching in an empty classroom.
- Spreading ideas is like assembling an IKEA table.
If you’re a regular reader, you probably remember many of these examples. That’s because striking images like these tend to stick in your mind.
But despite the power of a well-chosen analogy, many bloggers ignore them.
It’s almost as if they’re too intimidated to take this tool out of its box.
Which is a shame, because they really should.
Why Analogies Do Twice The Work in Half The Time
Analogies are powerful because they use established ideas to do the heavy lifting of introducing new ideas.
Consider the following two descriptions:
- A four-legged mammal standing about four feet tall at the shoulder, having an elongated head, large ears and distinctive black and white markings.
- A stripey horse.
We’re talking about a zebra here, right? But can you see how the second description is much more concise? It reuses everything we already know about horses to describe a zebra.
(For the record, a horse is not strictly an analogy for a zebra. However, the process of describing a zebra in relation to a horse is like using an analogy.)
Let’s look at three reasons analogies are so powerful for writers.
1) Analogies boost comprehension
Although educating your readers is not enough to build a popular blog, you will likely be teaching your audience at least some of the time. And the better teacher has an edge over everyone else.
Analogies help you explain subtle or complex ideas by reference to concepts the reader already understands. They allow you to establish such ideas without much of the intellectual scaffolding required to build them from scratch.
To give an example, in physics class, the flow of current through an electrical wire is often explained as being like water flowing through a pipe. A thinner wire can take less current the same as a narrower pipe can take less water. Higher voltage is like higher water pressure.
Are water and electrical current the same? Of course not. (In fact, if you mix the two, you could literally get a nasty shock.)
But in this context, they’re similar enough to be useful.
2) Analogies shift perspective
In the list of examples above, Jon uses a surprising analogy to rapidly change his readers’ perspective about blogging.
Here’s the situation he refers to. Many beginning bloggers bust their guts to create content for their blogs before they have even a small audience, but they don’t get that this is a huge waste of time. They just assume it’s an inevitable part of getting started and hope that a few readers will eventually drift along.
But then Jon tells them in his post that publishing content without having an established audience is like teaching in an empty classroom.
It’s a powerful image, right? A teacher standing in front of a class delivering a lesson to absolutely nobody. How deluded would you need to be to do that?
And yet thousands of bloggers do the equivalent every day.
So Jon’s analogy invites them to see their behavior in the light of a similar situation, where they can more easily see that their behavior is completely silly.
So if you can get your reader to buy into your analogy, it can be hugely persuasive. Because they’re practically forced to apply everything they know to be true about one situation to the other.
And that can create a major shift in perspective.
3) Analogies blast away boredom
Analogies also serve a simpler purpose – making your content more interesting and engaging.
People like discovering unexpected connections and comparisons. It activates their imagination and helps you to hold their attention.
To give an example, the latest version of our revised Guest Blogging program uses analogies in almost every lesson.
Sometimes it’s because an analogy makes a difficult concept easier to understand. But often it’s just because the analogy makes the lesson more fun.
In one lesson, we compare guest blogging without a strategy to trying to hit a pinata blindfolded. It’s a helpful analogy, but it’s also a fun image. (We even embedded a video of birthday pinata to bring it to life.)
The bottom line is that learning can be hard work. If the materials are too dry or unengaging, people will stop reading.
But analogies are a highly effective antidote.
How to Find the Perfect Analogy for Any Situation
Finding good analogies can be tricky.
Often the most interesting and effective analogies are the least obvious, and thus the hardest to find.
Inspiration will sometimes save you, but no writer should rely on their muse too often.
Fortunately, a simple process can make finding the right analogy significantly easier.
1) List the notable features of Thing X
What simple statements can you make about the thing you’re trying to describe?
To take an example, let’s imagine you run a career blog and you’re writing a post about that awkward period where you have a job but you’re actively looking for another.
So you’re working on your resume during your lunch break, disappearing to take phone calls from recruiters, and generally struggling to maintain normal appearances in your current job while trying to land the next.
What are the notable features of that situation?
Here are some ideas:
- Secrecy – usually you don’t want your colleagues (and certainly your bosses) to know you’re looking for a new job.
- Clandestine meetings – leaving work early to attend interviews and inventing bogus reasons for your absence.
- Feelings of guilt – you feel bad about not being entirely honest with people but don’t see another option.
2) Do a mental search for other things sharing those same features
For each of the features of Thing X, try to think of other things that also have those features by asking simple questions.
In this case:
- What other situations require secrecy?
- When else might you need to lie about where you were and what you were doing?
- In what other situations might you feel guilty about your behavior?
The following ideas spring to mind:
- Being a government spy – you certainly have a need for secrecy; you may need to lie to friends and family about where you were and what you were doing at certain times; feelings of guilt could arise from living a double life.
- Arranging a surprise birthday party – you don’t want the birthday boy or girl to find out; you may have to arrange meetings behind their back with other friends, a restaurant, etc.; you may feel temporarily guilty about your dishonesty (even though you know it’s for a good cause.)
- Having an extramarital affair – you don’t want your spouse to find out; you’ll probably lie about where you were to cover up your liaisons; the guilt normally associated with being unfaithful.
3) Test the analogy by looking for other similarities and differences
Once you have some possible analogies for your situation, play Devil’s Advocate. Find ways in which the two things are not alike and decide if the differences detract from the analogy.
Taking the first of the three ideas above, one difference is that being a government spy is not a short-term situation, like looking for a new job. With a job search, you either find a new job and move on, or decide to stay.
Is that a distracting enough discrepancy to rule it out as an analogy? Maybe.
But also the fact that being a spy is a job of sorts is an unhelpful similarity. In this case though your bosses do know your secret – that you’re a spy – so that’s potentially confusing for the reader.
What about the second idea – arranging a surprise birthday party? Similar to looking for a new job, arranging a party is a short-term situation, so that could work. But unlike a job search, party planning is not about finding a replacement for an existing thing.
Finally, what about the extramarital affair? You could argue that an affair is more like moonlighting rather than changing jobs – i.e. trying to get some “extra” work on the side instead of quitting your main job. But some affairs do result in a new long-term relationship so maybe they’re not so different.
Also other interesting similarities exist. For instance, consider the consequences of getting caught sneaking around. In the career scenario you could potentially lose your job. If you’re discovered having an affair you could lose your marriage.
So this seems like the most promising analogy of the three. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good.
But how do you know when you need to keep looking?
3 Simple Clues That You Haven’t Found the Right Analogy Yet
Choosing from several possible analogies is as much art as science, but here are some clues that you haven’t landed on the right idea just yet:
- The two things are different in more ways than they are similar.
- The two things are similar in most ways, but the most prominent feature doesn’t match.
- The thing you’re drawing an analogy with takes too long to explain or is not widely understood.
The acid test is to ask this question:
Is the writing clearer, more persuasive or more interesting with the analogy than without it?
3 Ways to Turn Your Writer’s Power Tool to MAX
As you become more confident using analogies, consider using one of these methods to get even more power.
1) Bring an abstract concept to life
Some ideas are tough to grasp because they’re naturally abstract.
In fact the whole concept of spreading ideas is quite abstract – there’s usually little to see (or hear, or feel) when an idea transfers from one person to another.
And that’s why my post on writing clearly used the analogy of assembling a flat-pack table.
Building a table piece by piece is a much more tangible process but it has a number of features in common with “building” an idea in someone’s head.
2) Borrow powerful emotions from another context
Sometimes the benefit of using an analogy isn’t just the knowledge that comes bundled with that other thing, it’s the emotion.
So, for example, if you write for freelancers and you want to talk about the deep frustration of having first-class skills but no clients, don’t simply describe the feelings – compare the situation to being a superhero who’s forbidden to use their special powers.
Find the right analogy and you’ll conjure emotions more quickly and intensely than a simple description could ever achieve.
3) Lighten the tone with humor
Seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out.
Pretty funny, right?
Sometimes a carefully constructed analogy can bring much-needed humor to a dry topic.
Clever analogies like the seagull manager (and its close cousin the mushroom manager) are tricky to construct – which is why this is an advanced technique for power users only.
But if you find you have a gift for them, people could be quoting you for years to come.
Plug In, Power Up and Take Off
Analogies are one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox.
Yes, they need careful handling, but if you follow the process above, finding the right analogy should be as simple as using a screwdriver or a saw.
Do it right and you’ll communicate – and educate – more elegantly and persuasively than ever before.
Your popularity will pick up, and that annoying plateau will soon become a distant memory.
So go ahead. Don’t be afraid. Open your toolbox.