My favorite lines in all of literature are not from a Shakespearean play, not from a romantic love sonnet, and not from a modern short story. Instead, my favorite lines are from an old poem written by Solomon, a former king of Israel. The poem appears in The Bible in the book of Proverbs, and the writer uses four similes to describe four human experiences:
Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a ruling rightly given.
Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is the rebuke of a wise judge to a listening ear.
Like a snow-cooled drink at harvest time is a trustworthy messenger to the one who sends him; he refreshes the spirit of his master.
Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of gifts never given. (NIV Study Bible: Proverbs 25:11–14)
As a writer, you, too, can create vivid descriptions with similes — and metaphors.
Basically, a simile is a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” (The words “seem” or “appear” are sometimes used for similes, as well.) If you think writing is difficult, for example, you could simply write, “Writing is difficult.” However, if you want to be more imaginative, you could use a simile to describe different degrees of difficulty. “Writing is like driving a taxi in New York City,” or “Writing is as difficult as threading a needle in a tornado.” Similes make your writing more colorful and more interesting for your readers.
When using similes, however, you should compare things that are essentially different. For instance, “Writing is like printing,” or “Writing is as difficult as typing” do not qualify as similes because you’re comparing two pretty similar activities. Similes should give readers a unique way of looking at a particular subject.
Professional writers use similes often. In his essay entitled “A Nonsmoker with a Smoker,” Phillip Lopate describes his girlfriend’s craving for a cigarette in this way: “It’s almost as though there were another lover in the room — a lover who was around long before I entered the picture, and who pleases her in mysterious ways I cannot” (70). Later, in that same essay, Lopate writes that his girlfriend’s cigarette is “like a weapon in her hand, awakening in me a primitive fear of being burnt” (74). Lopate’s use of similes gives more feeling and more life to his essay.
Similes are also closely related to metaphors because they both use comparison, but a fine distinction exists between the two. In fact, a metaphor is actually stronger than a simile because a metaphor is a direct comparison without using the words “like” or “as.” So when Leola Evans describes the destruction of a tornado in the essay “Wind” by William Least Heat-Moon, she could have used a simile and said, “The car was like an accordion” (35). Apparently, however, she wanted a more forceful image, so she used a metaphor instead: “The car was an accordion.” The absence of the words “like” or “as” shows that the car wasn’t just scratched or dented; it was crushed completely.
Here are a few more examples of metaphors. In the essay, “More Room,” Judith Ortiz Cofer describes her grandmother’s Bible in this way: “God’s word was her security system” (55). In “The Jacket,” Gary Soto writes that his old, ugly jacket “had become the ugly brother who tagged along wherever I went” (257). And in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr., uses two metaphors when he says, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” (506).
When I talk about writing, I often tell jokes or funny stories to connect with my students. If they smile, I know that the joke was okay, but if they laugh, I know that the joke was really funny. When you write, keep that distinction in mind; similes are like smiles, but metaphors are much stronger. Metaphors are laughter.
Cofer, Judith Ortiz. “More Room.” Funk, et al., pp. 54–57.
Funk, Robert, et al., editors. The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader. 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 2000.
Heat-Moon, William Least. “Wind.” Funk, et al., pp. 34–35.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” The Short Prose Reader, 10th ed., edited by Gilbert H. Muller and Harvey S. Wiener, McGraw-Hill, 2003, pp. 506–509.
Lopate, Philip. “A Nonsmoker with a Smoker.” Against Joie de Vivre: Personal Essays. Bison, 2008, pp. 70–74.
The New International Version (NIV) Study Bible. General editor Kenneth Barber, Zondervan, 1985.
Soto, Gary. “The Jacket.” The Mercury Reader: A Custom Publication (Hudson Valley Community College), Vol. 2, edited by Janice Neuleib, et al., Pearson, 2001, pp. 255–258.