Posts Tagged ‘writing style tips’

How To Teach Children Metaphor (Part Two)

Friday, April 16th, 2010
Dead Metaphor

"She's a Flower" is an example of Dead Metaphor

I said, in a previous post, metaphor is coming right out and saying something IS, versus simile, where we make a comparison using the words “like”, “as”, and “than.”  So to get your child or students started, you’ll want to begin with some simple metaphors, preceded by familiar similes, with much explanation, of course.

First of all, let’s read a “textbook” definition of metaphor.’s definition of a metaphor is:

“…a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between two unlike things that actually have something important in common. The word metaphor itself is a metaphor, coming from a Greek word meaning to “transfer” or “carry across.” Metaphors “carry” meaning from one word, image, or idea to another.”

But isn’t that definition about as easy to understand, for a kid, as when their teacher first says, “Show me, don’t tell me”?  We have to start by giving examples, and getting kids to think about WHY the seemingly NON-apparent things in common or similarities make sense.  LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND will be very important during these moments of discovery.

So…one example could be:

Simile: “Jennifer is as pretty as a flower in my garden.”
Metaphor: “Jennifer is a flower in the garden of my life.”

It shouldn’t be too difficult to get kids to understand a pretty girl can be thought of as being “as pretty as a flower” without actually looking LIKE a flower, but to explain how Jennifer could BE a flower in the “GARDEN” of someone’s life?  You have to initiate understanding of abstract concepts into kids’ minds by getting theme to associate a little bit at a time.  So to do this with the above example, you might create an interaction something like this [again; this just an example of a plausible exchange, not intended to be a script to follow, so please bear with]:

“How can a pretty girl ‘be’ a flower in a ‘garden’ of someone’s life?   Can a person really BE a flower?  Well, not really, of course, but the person is comparing his or her LIFE to a garden.  Garden’s have ALL SORTS of things in them, don’t they?  There are beautiful things and there are not so beautiful things.  There are flowers to enjoy, fruits and vegetables—sometimes—to eat, but there’s also dirt and bugs and wasps, gophers that damage the garden, and sometimes snakes, too right?  The bugs bother us.  The wasps can sting us.  The dirt can get in our shoes, or under our fingernails.  The snakes can scare us, or if they’re dangerous, they can bite and harm us, right?  Well, life is also filled with things that ‘bug’ or bother us, or hurt us, like a bite or a sting, or get us dirty, or cause other problems, right?  Life isn’t just made up of all pretty, fragrant, enjoyable or delicious things, now is it?  Well, in a similar way, a garden can be compared to a person’s life, which has all sorts of THINGS in it—some good, some not so good…even some bad things, like gophers that cause problems we might not see right away, or snakes.  Now imagine how a pretty girl—perhaps a man’s daughter, to him—could be LIKE a flower, but instead of saying ‘she’s LIKE a flower,’ he says she IS a flower, in the garden of his life.  He doesn’t really mean she’s an actual flower, but he is speaking in metaphor to make a comparison!”

I realize that’s quite an elaborate explanation, but we’re talking about kids here.  If your students are particularly precocious you can trim it down as you see fit to suit their ability to grasp the concept of metaphor in this regard.

In an effort to keep these posts shorter, I’ll approach the remaining three of the four, basic metaphors I mentioned in Part One, Visual, Conventional, & Creative in another post, since I’ve already touched upon the Dead metaphor here [Dead metaphors, I think, are good practice for helping kids to understand they’re familiar with metaphor, but might not realize it].

Just remember: our goal, here, in teaching children metaphor is to help them to learn how to use the device effectively to “show not tell” in writing.

Until next time!

[Next Up: How To Show With Visual Metaphors]

How To Teach Children Metaphor (Part One)

Monday, April 12th, 2010
Speak Metaphorically

How Do We Teach 'Metaphor' to Children?

[This piece was originally going to be titled: “Mom? What’s a ‘Meta’ For?” but I’ve decided to change the title of this portion of my series to a more practical—and search engine VISIBLE—one. ]

Teaching children how to “show not tell” using simile wasn’t so terribly difficult.

It’s really a matter of “thinking like a child” or paying attention to the things they say, the way they observe life, and then helping them think of examples that make sense.  Then once they get the hang of it and, after practicing LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, they can begin to incorporate simile into their creative writing more regularly.   The use of the literary device, simile, really does aid in training children [or adults] to learn how to “show and not tell.”

But approaching metaphor with children will take more time, requiring more thought, and you’ll have to draw on many examples, because there are so many variations or types of metaphors [13 that I know of] to learn—many of them complex and abstract—and it will take years of using metaphors—consciously—to gain a real, functional skill in weaving them into one’s writing or manner of speech.  I say functional, because we all actually speak metaphorically almost every day, in life, without realizing it.

Here are a few examples:

1. The face of the mountain.
2. She broke my heart.
3. Life is a roller coaster.
4. I’m at the end of my rope.
5. He wore me down.
6. The daily grind.

Yes, those are ALL metaphors.  We usually call them “figures of speech,” but even I hadn’t thought of them as metaphors…until I started researching for this series, that is!

One quick note: I don’t think it’s a good idea to attempt to teach too many kinds of metaphor, at first; not until, at least, your student or child displays adeptness at coming up with metaphors that work well [there are abstract metaphors I’m STILL scratching my head over!]

So let’s start with just a few.  I’ve paraphrased definitions from this piece: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Metaphor—The Different Types of Metaphors.

Here are some basic metaphor types.

1. Dead Metaphor.  Those that we’ve used “to death” and have lost their impact or even meaningfulness.   The examples above are all dead metaphors.
2. Visual Metaphor.  Represents a person, place, thing, or idea by way of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity.
3. Conventional Metaphor.  A familiar comparison that doesn’t call attention to itself as a figure of speech.
4. Creative Metaphor.  An original comparison that DOES call attention to itself as a figure of speech.

I’ll start with the first one, Dead Metaphor; the other examples I’ll save for another day, and I’ll write shorter posts for #’s 3 & 4 in a separate lesson on ‘show don’t tell’, using those kinds of metaphors to accomplish good storyshowing.

Okay, let’s “take a stab” [metaphor!] at the first dead metaphor example for showing versus telling, and see if we can’t bring it back to life, and see if we can’t get your students’ thoughts in the right frame.

The front of the mountain was like the face of a monster. [Simile].
The face of the mountain was a terrible, grimacing monster breathing down on the village. [Metaphor]

Granted, the use of metaphor tends to call for more words and description, but you end up with a more vivid image, don’t you think?

Now for #2…

She broke my heart.  That’s a metaphor a child will probably have heard, so the correct, non-metaphorical statement would be…

She hurt my feelings, and made me very sad [since a person can’t literally break someone else’s heart, not without killing that person, right?]  And so once your students understand and recognize “she broke my heart” is a metaphor, but a dead—and NOT creative or original—metaphor, at that, you can help them DECIDE on a more creative, more “showy” metaphor (or simile) to use.  The verb ‘broke’ is kind of weak, too; plus, we’re not sure if ‘she’ intended to break the heart, or if she was unaware of what she’d done.

Let’s try something else that’s not only more dramatic, like…crushed or stomped on—or both—but also that answers questions about intent, and thus revealing more about her Secret Story:

She crushed my heart, like a dried leaf on the sidewalk, under her shoe.

Now let’s improve that and ‘show’ more with something like…

My heart was a dried leaf, on the sidewalk, on her walk through life, and she stepped on it, crushing it to dust.

Of course, with such an example, you’ll have to help kids “see” the reasoning behind why/how these make sense by maybe saying something like:

“Have you ever walked along the sidewalk, during autumn, and stepped on dead leaves?  They get crushed under your feet, don’t they?  And sometimes we don’t even notice it happen, do we?  Well, maybe this girl was so busy thinking about her own things, she wasn’t paying attention to the boy’s feelings, and ended up hurting his feelings—kind of like accidentally stepping on a dried leaf, and HE felt like she ‘crushed his heart’.  Maybe that can be their ‘Secret Story’ for you to tell.”

After a while, they’ll get the hang of thinking up metaphors all on their own; just keep them practicing.

I never said teaching metaphor to children would be a breeze, but my point is young kids—say, 3rd to 5th grade—CAN learn metaphor, and you CAN teach kids how to effectively “show, not tell” by taking on the challenge of understanding some simple metaphors, and using them in their writing.

“Show Me a Story, Mommy!”

Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Basic Writing: Show Don't Tell

We're Trained, Since Birth, to Tell, Not Show

When we were little kids, many of us would ask mom or dad, “Can you tell me a story?

Those times would, more than likely, occur just before bedtime, no doubt!  Such requests became less frequent as each of us got older.  Much of how we learned to talk was derived from the communications we got from our parents and, of course, our teachers at school.  When we reached 4th or 5th grade and began to learn effective writing skills, we probably heard our teachers say, Show me, don’t tell me,” in regards to descriptive writing or story telling.

But don’t you remember wondering, “How can I show something with words?”

I clearly remember thinking that.

From what I can tell, most of the teachers who tell kids, ‘Show me, don’t tell me’, don’t effectively show how to “show.”  Instead, they TELL kids not to tell without efficiently demonstrating (showing) how it’s done.   But is it any wonder?   Those sincere labors of well-meaning educators set about to—in effect—undo the very training most of us have undergone since birth: namely, how only to tell, without “showing”…only to be TOLD not to do it any longer!

Well, I’m going to endeavor to illustrate [show], through examples, on how to train kids to show instead of tell, when it comes to creative writing or description.   I’ll try to break these “lessons” up into to shorter posts, so they don’t take up so much of our time in the writing AND the reading!

Let me start by planting this thought in your heads:

“Showing” begins not with the use of overt adjectives—or adverbs—like, the black bear fought ferociously, the girl screamed loudly, the little dog jumped playfully, the colorful bird sang joyfully, etc. Of course, when our parents began teaching us, they did so using just these kinds of descriptions: words that say…describe…or…tell how something looks, is, or is done…causing our thoughts to merely wander, instead of speaking in a way that would have made them run wild!

I assert we should start out by teaching our children/students those [supposedly] sophisticated literary concepts saved for high school: the use of simile and metaphor to bring to our readers’, or listeners’, imaginations images that seem to live in their minds either like memories or fantasies.

It’s up to those of us who teach children to learn these techniques ourselves, and then use examples that make sense to kids’ minds.  Don’t worry; children are intelligent and have imaginations that are often Disney-like in their richness!

Next Lesson: How To Show Instead of Tell.

Piecing Together Stories

Friday, March 12th, 2010
Piecing Together a Story

YOU decide where to begin your story!

[[This piece I wrote, originally, on March 11, 2010, as a lesson for my daughter's 4th grade class, after I taught a writing camp at her school. I may very well turn this into a series, for kids, on how to become a more engaging writer.  Again...keep in mind this was originally written for 4th and 5th graders.]]

In school we’re told a story has a beginning, middle, and an end.  We’re also told when we tell a story that a story should start with the beginning, move to the middle, and then to the end.  We’ll get to how to “show” a story later!

A lot of times, when we tell stories, we DON’T tell them from beginning to end!  As a matter of fact, when we write or tell [or show] stories, it doesn’t matter what “order” they’re told.  You watch a lot of movies and TV shows that “show” the story “out of order.”  A lot of shows start out showing the end, or middle, first, and then they go back and show you how it all started, don’t they?

Think about it.

Pretend you have a dog, named Jake.  Imagine Jake ran away, you looked for him, found him and then brought him back home.  Now, imagine you tell your friends about it.   This is probably how it would go:

“Hey! Guess what? My dog, Jake, ran away. But we got him back!”

You just told the END of your story, FIRST, didn’t you?  You might go on to fill in the details of how it all started, how you searched for Jake, and how worried you were, but you’d probably wrap up your story quite nicely in a matter of minutes.

Stories are kind of like recipes for cookies or cheesecake: it doesn’t matter [much] what order you mix the ingredients, just so long as it tastes good, right?  Stories really aren’t much different!

Here’s a quick example of a story beginning at the end:

Max was dead. It was my fault, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

Pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It makes you want to know what happened, doesn’t it?  You want to know who Max was, and you want to know more about the person who feels responsible for Max’s death, too.

In this example, a story has begun at the end.  Or has it?  The great thing about starting a story this way, is you can “trick” the reader into believing what you want him or her to believe, and add details only you know, when you want to—just be careful not to make something up that won’t be believable to your reader; you don’t want your reader to get mad and feel like he or she has wasted his or her valuable time!

The point of this exercise is to remember a story is kind of like three, separate strips of paper: one labeled “middle”, another labeled “end” and another labeled “beginning.”  So long as you “tape them together” and the ends come together to form a circle, or even an “Infinity” loop [adding a “twist” to your story], keeping the details together to make sense, you’re likely to have quite a nice story to show others!

Halloween Candy Myth Busted

Friday, December 4th, 2009
Why Do Some Stories Stick With Us?

Why Do Some Stories Stick With Us?

DID YOU KNOW? Halloween candy from strangers, statistically speaking, is safer for kids to eat than from family members? It’s TRUE!

“What’s that?” You say? How’s this for a myth buster: studies have shown there have never been any cases of razor blades in apples, cyanide or arsenic poisoning injected into candy, etc.  It just doesn’t happen.  In fact, the whole dangerous candy scare, which still concerns 60% of American parents, and has caused the states of California and New Jersey to pass laws with especially stringent punishments for candy tamperers, is nothing but fear that’s been perpetuated by a myth…an urban legend.

So…what’s the reason candy from strangers is safer than from family members?  Well, in a national study on this matter, the ONLY kids who’ve died in relation to Halloween candy are: 1) A boy found his father’s heroin stash and overdosed.  His dad, in an effort to draw attention away from him self, dusted his son’s candy with heroin.  The other was a boy whose father killed him with cyanide, in an attempt to collect insurance money.  But no reports of candy from strangers causing harm.  It’s really sad how this urban myth and others like it have caused us to suspect each other, you know?

As a persuasive writer, the fascinating naturally, fascinates me.  Well, I’ve just started reading [yet another] fascinating book–especially so for me, as a writer–and it’s called Made to Stick, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. Their book analyzes what makes certain ideas or stories to endure—“stick”—while others fizzle.

From Kentucky-Fried Rats [never happened], to people waking up in bathtubs filled with ice and a missing kidney [urban legend], Made To Stick, delves into what makes “sticky” stories sticky, and helps writers and all creative people tap into how to become indelibly “stuck” in people’s minds.

I bought my copy on Amazon about $13.  If you write creatively or in a persuasive manner, you ought to pick up a copy.

What’s Up With ‘That’?

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

What's Up With That?I am often amazed, while reading published, online or printed, [particularly non-fiction] works at the many pieces that pass for good, or acceptable, writing.  Now, to be fair, there is some excellent writing to be found, if you read long enough…whether it’s optimized web content, press releases, or journalism; you just have to be able to recognize it when you run across it.

That having been said, there is also a lot of slothful writing grabbing top ranks on Google—yes, even amidst the many articles of the major, online news sources. What’s most wearisome, for me, is the abundance of bad writing manifest through redundancy, poor structure, and just plain, [bad] style!  There’s more than enough insipidity to choke us all.  It’s doubtful the manna showered upon the Israelites became any less palpable than much of what meets the eyes of millions of readers seeking factually persuasive, much less stylistically enjoyable, content via their favorite search engines.

And although the writing of original, SEO content might not warrant—for many so-called journalists or bloggers—observance of basic Elements of Style sufficient to placate messieurs Strunk and White, you would think more self-proclaimed writers would at least own a copy of that indispensable, five-sixteenths-of-an-inch thick, writer’s resource!

Furthermore—should one dare to hope—it would be quite refreshing if said devotees of the craft would actually implement some of those jewels of wisdom and style found in that little book toward honing a more excellent technique and flair.

Of a truth, that rather thin, apparently unimposing reference (should) remain as ever-present in every writer’s work nook as…well…as a spare flash drive, or as pens and paper once were.   Even the greatest chess champion or the most skilled sniper regularly maintain their skills by revisiting “the basics” of what they do, or what they’re about.

This brings me to one of my pet peeves when it comes to (people not) observing basic guidelines of good writing is the annoyingly sophomoric (over) use of the word ‘that.’

If you’ve sat through more than a week of any English Composition class, you will surely have heard your professor say something, in reference to the almost hackneyed peppering of essays, term papers, or most basic of expositional writings with the word ‘that.’

This, what I like to call “crutch” word, is almost as prevalent in the writings of working professionals and authors as the word “like” is in the idiolect of your average, American teenager.   Bad speech habits due to immaturity and peer influences are understandable—even excusable, to a point.  However, poor writing style or ignorance of composition fundamentals, due to laziness or their simply being perpetuated by the public aren’t—or shouldn’t be—anymore than “text speak” should be tolerated in a term paper for a composition class!

I’m not saying this excessive insertion of the word is [necessarily] grammatically incorrect, but as far as writing style is concerned, the allowance, at least in my opinion, excludes those guilty of said “crime” from the ranks of true craftsmen…or craftswomen, if you must.

Quite frankly, it takes very little effort to excise “that” habit from one’s writing by simply observing examples [especially one’s own] of the offense, and then witnessing the improvement in readability. By so doing, reformed writers will also notice zero reduction in meaning but, in most cases, an actual boost in that “active voice” we all remember our English Comp teachers lecturing us about.

Below, I’ve included a couple of examples of what I‘m talking about.  A college student wrote the first example, if you can believe it.  I took it from a blog on the Internet.   I have made a few editorial changes in regards to revealing information, but the over-use of the relative pronoun, “that,” [with a strike-through in each case] has been left just the way this student wrote it originally.  Note the bad grammar, as well. I was tempted to insert commas and other punctuation as needed (it was driving me crazy) but I refrained.

“…I love [program name] love science and love anybody who made this site come true to any [one] out there I am a college student and my life was just described in the example above believe me if I had money I would have joined [program name] 100% anyway, I have figured something out and it has worked and [is] still working for me but I don’t know how much would it last and that’s killing me inside my main goal is to avoid [addictive behavior] whenever I feel the urge I convince myself that I am not myself now that [good!] I am kinda drugged or something and once I [distract myself] (without [indulging in behavior) I will be back and it worked for me... so whenever I get the feeling that I will fail and won’t be able to control myself….”

Try reading this example, out loud, to your self and see if the content [if you can actually call it content] doesn’t flow better without the (over) use ‘that’ word!  The original paragraph has several more unnecessary that’s.

So you might be saying to yourself, “So what’s the big deal? It’s a blog!  Who cares about grammar, punctuation, let alone style, in a blog?”

Well, that’s precisely my point: too many people are either ignorant to this basic element of good writing, or our culture of texting, emails, and blogging have [seemed to] make it permissible to be lackadaisical when it comes to writing well.

And the bad habit is being taught to students [children] even today.  Here is an example I took from one of my child’s homework assignments just the other evening [I’ve now got my kids catching onto excessive “that” offense]!

“…the principal of the school told the children that it is against school rules to wear baseball caps while at school.   He told the students that if he lets one student wear a baseball cap, then he would have to let kids who want to wear cowboy hats wear those, too.  He explained that only on special ‘free-dress’ days would the students be allowed to wear hats of any kind.   He told the students that the school rules are very important to help keep the students safe and happy.”

Did you see that?  YIKES!

Now…go back and re-read the paragraph, skipping over those crossed-out ‘that’s’ and see how much more smoothly it reads.  What’s more, the use of the word in every instance didn’t add any value to the message conveyed, nor did the removal of the words detract from the meaning of the content.  If anything, the presence of the word only served to weaken it!

I realize my writing, here, is hardly the epitome of perfection.  I have written a few passive sentences, along with a fragment or two, perhaps.   But maybe if I get a few people “out there”, online, thinking about it, I will have rendered some valuable service that someone could use in writing a press release, blog, email, or letter, and make his or her optimized content that much more persuasive.