Writers use figurative language to add interest, variety and personality to their work. Figurative language is broadly defined as using words to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Specific uses of figurative language include similes, metaphors, alliteration, hyperbole and onomatopoeia. If you’d like to add figurative language to your essay, the best time to do this is during the revision stage of the writing process.
Mark Dead Words
After you’ve completed a first draft of your essay, print off a copy and use a highlighter or colored pen to mark any words or phrases that are overused, boring, or otherwise lifeless. Words to mark might include:
• A lot • Many • Big • Small • Fun • Cool • Awesome • Great • Exciting • Good • Happy • Sad • Really
These words aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re boring and don’t paint a clear picture for the reader because they’re subject to the reader’s interpretation.
Show, Don’t Tell
Now that you’ve marked your dead words and phrases, you can work on replacing them with words and phrases that come alive. Your goal is to show, not tell, the reader what is happening in your essay, and you can do this by including sensory details. Consider the following sets of sentences:
• The workday went by slowly. I was really excited to start my vacation.
• I watched the clock, which seemed to be moving more slowly than usual. At exactly 5 p.m., it was like a bolt of lightning hit my chair. I jumped up, grabbed my bag, and zoomed off to board a plane for paradise. By the time I got to the airport, I could almost smell the saltwater.
Both sets of sentences convey the idea that the author was excited to go on vacation, but the second set is much more effective because the use of figurative language helps the reader visualize the author’s excitement.
Don’t Overdo It
Figurative language should be a natural part of your essay. If your descriptions sound forced or like you’ve just stuck them in to meet a requirement, go back and revise your work. Think about how you’d like your audience to feel as they’re reading your essay and then use figurative language accordingly. Also, remember that you don’t have to use every type of figurative language in one essay.
As you continue developing your skills as a writer, you will find that using figurative language becomes more natural. Reading descriptive literature can help speed up this process, as can having someone else review your work.
Rochelle Spears Wilson holds a MA in professional writing and a BA in English. She was a classroom teacher for nine years and taught English, social studies and technology. She has worked with students in grades 4-12 and now owns her own consulting business.