Metaphor and analogy in academic writing

February 8, 2017
When and how should you use metaphors and analogies in your academic writing?


Metaphors are a way of quickly conveying a sense of an idea using a word that actually means something else.

For example, if I say, "the foundation of a good literature review is a good understanding of the basic problems the literature is trying to solve", then I'm using the concept of a physical foundation as a metaphor. I could say, "in order to write a good literature review you first need a good understanding...", but the metaphor conveys so much more because it carries associations with structure and solidity; without a good foundation the building collapses.

Not only is everyday language full of metaphors like this, but technical academic jargon too. In physics, for example, we talk of electrons tunneling and leaping; borrowing pre-existing terms that actually mean something else because there is no other verb to describe what electrons are really doing.


An analogy,

It is not enough to simply give you a step-by-step process for writing, because the effectiveness of that process depends on your level of skill. To explain why, here's an analogy.
Let's imagine that I spend the day in the kitchen of the world's best chef. They show me the exact process for creating their signature dish and provide me with all the ingredients and tools I need. No matter how hard or how carefully I try to follow their process I will fail because I lack the basic skills required.The same applies to writing. You can follow the same processes as a great writer, but this will only work if you have already developed the required skill.

Here, the same principle of skill-dependence applies to both situations, so the cooking analogy can be used to help make the point about writing.

This is the key to a good analogy; it must share a real and specific trait with the thing that you want to describe.

How metaphor and analogy go wrong

While metaphors are useful for communicating an abstract idea, some writers use them the wrong way round; making the metaphor the basis for the entire argument.

Going back to the "foundation" example, it's easy to take the metaphor too far;

A literature review needs a good foundation, and the strength of a foundation depends on the ground into which it is dug. Dig into solid rock and it will be harder work, but you don't need to dig as deep as you would into softer ground.  You also need to decide how high you want to build, as the heavier the structure, the more stable the foundation needed. Once a foundation is established, it is very difficult to change. Therefore, it is important to decide early kind of structure you want and upon what ground you want to build it.

If you get too caught up in the cleverness or originality of the metaphor you start to forget about the thing you're actually trying to describe. In this example, instead of using a metaphor to describe the subject, it's asking what the metaphor can teach us about the subject. The result is nonsense.

Analogies go wrong in slightly different ways. Often, the problem is that the writer doesn't understand the thing they are drawing an analogy with. For example;

When you start writing, just write as fast as you can. Like a professional musician warming up for a performance, they don't worry about accuracy...

Here, the writer undermines their own argument by picking an analogy they clearly know nothing about, because most musicians would do the exact opposite (starting slowly and tuning up, going for accuracy before speed).

How to avoid these problems

If the only justification you have for your argument is an analogy or metaphor, or if you change the argument to fit the analogy or metaphor, then your argument will be weak. Make sure your argument works without the analogy or metaphor first.

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