Highway on-rampMy word-a-day calendar is famous for sharing words that make you go “huh?”

True, they are often the “perfect” word for a specific situation (like petrichor, as I’ve talked about before).  But they are more likely to set up a roadblock to meaning than open up an on-ramp to understanding.

If you want people to understand what you’re saying, you’re better off using concise, clear words, coupled with what I call expressive writing. (It’s a friendlier way of saying what many teachers call figurative writing.) Here’s how:

1. Use analogies (similes and metaphors)

Analogies create images in our brains and help understanding.

Similes compare two things, using “like” or “as.” For example:

  • “Now renovated, the house is airy and uncluttered inside, like a sentence with all the extra words removed.” – Lois Smith Brady in The New York Times
  • “At night she would lie in bed curled up like a shrimp and examine her life in the most unsparing light.” – David Lagercrantz, The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Metaphors compare the unfamiliar to the familiar without using “like” or “as.” For example:

  • “Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato around the suitcases.” – Susan Orlean in The Library Book
  • “We hear chickadees, sparrows, finches, and robins throughout the day – except for certain hours when, mysteriously, every one falls silent as if they’d all gone off to church.” – Sigrid Nunes in The Friend

2. Use colourful, specific language

Being specific helps your readers or listeners mentally picture what you’re describing. Journalist Roy Peter Clark calls this “getting the name of the dog.” And of course, you can also pair this with analogies. For example:

  • “The mud-brown frog is barely the size of a shelled pecan, but his call is large and dynamic, a long downward sweep that sounds remarkably like a phaser weapon on ‘Star Trek.’” – Natalie Angier in The New York Times
  • “Jeff was fresh out of embalming school and had taken over his grandfather’s funeral parlour in the village of Plattsville, Ontario, not far from Kitchener. He owned a crow-coloured suit and tie, a pair of black Florsheims, and a couple of white shirts – but did not yet own a hearse.” – Charles Wilkins, The Globe and Mail

3. Make numbers meaningful

Any time you have a particularly large or small number, relate it to something to help people understand the significance. This is especially important in the business world. For example:

  • An oil and gas company explained to its employees how much propane its refinery produced a year by saying 220 million litres of propane was “enough to power 10 million family barbecues.”
  • Freight and parcel delivery company Purolator told customers it delivered 143 million pounds of packages over the holidays, saying that was “like shipping 14 million adult male polar bears.

Where to get ideas

Be curious. Read (and watch and listen to) lots of different things – magazines, movies, books, newspapers, in-flight magazines, advertising, videos. Pay attention to music lyrics; musicians are masters at using familiar words in unfamiliar ways, or making great analogies. (Remember the line in Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, “Smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy”?) Keep a crib file.

Why is expressive writing important?

We’re a society of skimmers and snackers. We want the point, and fast. Expressive writing helps readers or listeners quickly grasp what you mean.

Have you noticed any memorable expressive writing? Please share in the comments.

Image: Tama66 and Pixabay.