Overusing the Simile

A simile is a comparison that uses “like” or “as” to draw a connection between two things. Sometimes, images illuminate our understanding of what a writer is saying and bring us to a new level of awareness or appreciation. Other times, the simile is overkill. Are you guilty of this writing faux pas?

simile, simile in writing, simile description
The simile can be an evocative flourish, but does it duplicate your efforts?

The Point of Imagery

Imagery, including simile, is best when used to evoke a feeling or idea that isn’t clear from the text itself. For example, if you want to say that “she looked as comfortable as a cat on a hot tin roof,” you’d mean that your character is awkward or uncomfortable or, worse, pained by the scene in question.

Imagery in writing is best used when it can bring additional dimension or meaning to a moment or scene that wasn’t there before. Whether or not to use an image, like a simile, should boil down to whether you want to evoke something specific in the mind of the reader. Ideally, something emotional.

Overusing Simile

However, many well-meaning writers end up with more imagery than they need by overusing the simile in particular. For example:

Grandma Lois had a collection of cactuses. Like a little desert in her living room.

He’d never felt so empty before, as if someone had scooped out his insides with a serving spoon.

The porch sizzled in the sun, like it was an oven turned on “low”. She fanned herself with her magazine.

If you take a look at all of these descriptions, one thing might hit you … like a baseball bat. They’re obvious. And not only that, but they’re redundant.

The use of simile writerly flair to these sentences, but is this something we need in the first place? Or will readers understand what you’re saying perfectly well without the additional explanation that the imagery brings to the table?

Paying Special Attention to Simile

Why have I singled out simile for this article, in particular, as being potentially redundant? Well, the trick is in the comparison. Sometimes, an image will stand alone without explanation. This is called a metaphor if it doesn’t use “like” or “as” and can refer to any use of imagery in your writing. But once you invite a direct comparison with “like” or “as,” it becomes a simile.

In order to make the comparison complete, you are naming at least two things that you then tie together. By naming the first thing and the second thing, you may be inviting redundancy … even unintentionally.

When you think of using simile in your own writing, ask yourself: Would this image best be served as a metaphor instead? Can you trust the reader to get your meaning without indulging in the temptation to explain?

Your use of imagery is a key part of voice. Hire me as your novel editor and learn whether your writing is as effective and evocative as possible.

Ditch the Flowery Writing During Your Action Scenes

Writers, here’s a useful piece of advice: ditch the flowery writing during your action scenes. This ties in with a note I give frequently, which is that good writing is about the balance of action and information. I’m also always telling writers about mimetic writing. The other day, with an editorial client, I thought of a great image that helped them conceptualize these ideas in a way that made sense.

flowery writing, self indulgent writing
If your protagonist is running from a flesh-eating monster, don’t bog down the action with a detailed description of the night sky.

The Example

Let’s say that we have a getaway car. It’s assumed that it will be used in a chase sequence, which is primarily action. Per the idea of mimetic writing, the narrative style of this passage should be quick and to the point, since we’re dealing with a scene that’s meant to move quickly.

In Action Scenes, Flowery Writing Slows the Pace

Now think about a camera taking a picture of the getaway car in order to convey what it looks like to the reader. This camera can take amazing high resolution images, or it can take grainy “potato quality” shots like you’d find coming from a middle-of-the-line cell phone. In this case, a many-megabyte high resolution picture of the getaway car might be beautiful, but if we try to work with that picture or send it to someone (the reader), it’s going to be a huge attachment, it’ll take time to upload, and it’ll clog up their email bandwidth. (Unless they have fiber, in which case this analogy is useless!) The high res image — flowery writing — is unnecessary, so it comes across as self indulgent rather than a useful tool to advance the plot.

Sometimes Quick and Dirty Does the Trick

For the chase sequence, then, we’d be fine with a quick, grainy snapshot of the getaway car so that we can get on with the action and not get bogged down with information. Here the balance swings to action rather than information. If we’re establishing a very important setting, then the beautiful high res image — flowery writing — is very appropriate, and the balance swings to information. The reader wants to know the delicate details, and you can dwell on them more, taking your time. It doesn’t come across as self indulgent writing when the pace is more relaxed. (That doesn’t mean you can lapse in purple prose, though!)

I hope this short but effective reminder helps you ditch the unnecessary flowery writing as you start a new year of writing!

Are you worried that your manuscript is bogged down with flowery writing? Hire my fiction editing services and I’ll help you weed out what’s unnecessary.

Achieving Good Writing: Omit Needless Words

Strunk & White of the legendary guide to good writing, The Elements of Style, were on to something when they advised writers, simply, to “omit needless words.” This is valuable advice as you work towards becoming a writer.

good writing, becoming a writer
Becoming a writer: Good writing is simple writing.

This is something I’ve been struggling with myself lately. As you may have guessed, I have just finished writing a book of writing advice. We don’t have a final title yet, but it will be out in November from Writer’s Digest Books. Huzzah! Fiction and nonfiction are two completely different beasts, but economy and good writing are still virtues in both.

Simple Writing: Not so Simple

As I was working, I found myself obsessing with simple writing. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and I really want to make it come across clearly but it’s such a tangle in my mind that it can just become much more difficult to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m really even trying to say and separate out the good stuff.

Sentences like the above ran positively amok in the first few drafts of my manuscript. Then I started to think simply. Read that run-on again. It’s a nightmare. As I got more and more comfortable with writing the book, I took a torch to sentences like it and focused on producing good writing.

Good Writing is Simple Writing

I’d rewrite it as, perhaps:

Sometimes I get so tangled up with expressing a core idea I can’t see the wheat for the chaff.

If I wanted to say it without the cliché, I might write:

Sometimes I overthink a core idea and let my explanation overshadow what I mean to say.

This is the same idea, the same information, but a lot more streamlined. All those extra words do not equal extra knowledge or good writing. In crafting my own manuscript, I developed eagle eyes for excessive language. Now all the notes I give on manuscripts are, “Simplify!” and “You’re saying something simple in a convoluted or roundabout way.” Keep this in mind as you’re working on becoming a writer.

Unpacking the Nightmare Sentence

Sometimes I get an idea in my head (I should hope so…where else do you get ideas?! This is implied.) and I really want to make it come across clearly (“Make it come across clearly” is flabby, “express” is a stronger verb that’s less colloquial and cuts to the point.) but it’s such a tangle in my mind (I like the “tangle” image but I’ve already mentioned “in my head,” so “in my mind” is not only redundant syntactically (“in my noun”), but in terms of content.) that it can just become much more difficult (“much more adjective” is a writing tic of mine that I notice everywhere, so is “just,” “even,” and “really,” which all feature in this sentence. I swear, if I was left to my own devices, I would just make sentences out of those filler words and nothing else.) to see all the garbage that surrounds what I’m even trying to say and separate out the good stuff (Here I’m restating my point for the billionth time. If I am talking about separating garbage from something, it’s implied that I’m probably trying to get it away from “good stuff,” so I don’t know if that bears repeating.).

Look for Your Own “Sentence Pretzels”

God. I exhaust myself. This is obviously a glaringly bad example, choked with needless words–circuitous, and redundant. But I’ve seen many similar “sentence pretzels” in critique, so I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with simplicity and good writing, whether in fiction or non.

I’m very grateful for the chance to write a book (and the pressure of a deadline). It has taught me a lot about good writing…the hard way. While I wish I could save you the trouble and divulge all of my recent insights, I know that a lot of these lessons are things you need to learn for yourself when you’re becoming a writer.

Want to produce good writing? Invest in my fiction editing services and I’ll help you trim the purple prose from your manuscript so your story shines through.