11 February 2014
The impetus for this post is a document I had the misfortune of seeing at work. There was a section that attempted to relate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to running a distributed software simulation.
Let’s talk about comparisons for a moment. There are several ways I can think of to express a comparisons: similes, metaphors, allegories, analogies. A good comparison is a thing of beauty. It’s elegant and conveys the author’s intent well. A bad comparison leaves the reader at best confused. There are a couple of things that you need to keep in mind if you want to craft a good comparison.
Points of Similarity and Difference
Every analogy breaks down at some point. You can’t map everything in an example from one to another (usually). Some of the most tragically humorous things I’ve read involve trying to find a one to one mapping from one thing to another. (Game designers take note, hacking a system can lead to this if you’re not careful. I’ve been guilty of it myself.) When you use an analogy, make sure you understand where these points of similarity and difference are. This is less of a concern with similes and metaphors, but it’s still possible to come up with weak writing due to carelessness. Taking the time to come up with a good comparison shows respect both to your idea and to your reader. A good simile is like a mental image; something that engages your reader’s mind immediately and intuitively. It puts you and your reader on the same page. Without that foundation, you’ll typically find that your readers lose track of what you’re saying.
Confession: I love this phrase. I probably love it a bit too much. It’s very important for me as an editor to know why the author uses the words they use. More importantly, it’s vital for you as a writer to know why you’re using the words you’re using. Comparisons are no different. Does the complexity of the topic warrant a comparison of some kind? Are you just trying to whip out your massive vocabulary and impress the reader with it? The former is a good reason; the latter a poor one. Your primary intent should be to communicate effectively. That’s why you’re writing, right? To convey your opinion, your thought, your concept. To spread an idea like wildfire.
Allons-y! Onward, but wield your words responsibly.