How might you engage your reader by incorporating more figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, personification and such)? How might you offer more valid comparisons using these techniques?

“All the world’s a stage”—have you ever wondered why people remember and quote lines from Shakespeare so much?  One of the reasons is because he used figurative language very effectively in his writings.  You may have heard the term “figurative language” before, and perhaps when you heard it you were in a class analyzing novels or poetry. But figurative language is not just used in literature: you can employ it in your essay writing to great effect.  Figurative language adds color to your writing by taking your words and applying them to other, often unexpected, objects or concepts.  By using figurative language, you can create vivid images in your reader’s mind that will not only give your writing a more distinctive style and make it more enjoyable to read but will also help make your argument more convincing.  So what exactly do these terms—metaphor, simile, and personification—mean, and how can they be used?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing with another.  Metaphors do not use “like” or “as” but equate the two terms you are comparing.  Effective metaphors capture your reader’s attention, and by creating strong, clear, interesting images, help the reader better understand and remember your point.

  • The financial crisis in America was a tsunami whose waves of destruction battered the economies of countries all over the world.  
  • Racial injustice is a disease that never seems to be cured.

A simile is a particular type of metaphor that compares two objects that are essentially not like one another.  A simile, unlike a metaphor, introduces this comparison with the words “like” or “as.”  My essay’s introduction is like the first sip of a fine wine—that is a simile; My essay’s introduction is the first sip of a fine wine—that is a metaphor. Used sparingly, similes can help your statements stand out and evoke thought-provoking images for your reader:

  • The fast food industry’s attempts to offer healthy menu options are like the 11th hour plea bargain of a death row inmate.
  • "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness" (Orwell 316). [1]

Personification is giving animals, inanimate objects, and ideas human form, personality, or emotion.  Though you would not want to employ personification too much in an essay (just as you also have to be careful about the frequency of your similes and metaphors—too many can make your writing tedious or pretentious), one or two uses of personification can make your writing more interesting and rhetorically effective.

  • With funding tight in many school systems across the country, art programs are being pick-pocketed by science and math programs.
  • The past will always come knocking on the politician’s door.      


Here are some key things to remember when using figurative language:

  • Make your images clear, precise, and understandable (you want to interest and maybe intrigue your reader, not confuse him/her).
  • Stay away from clichéd comparisons (what’s the point of using figurative language if you’re just going to recycle the same tired metaphors?).
  • Avoid using too much figurative language (a little goes a long way).  

It would be a good idea to ask your classmate in a peer review session to evaluate your figurative language according to these criteria.   

Figurative language can be used in any part of your paper.  Because it is more dramatic and visual than a direct statement in everyday language, it enables you to better arrest your reader’s attention and perhaps cause him/her to pause and think more about your assertions.  Metaphors, similes, and personification can help you better convey complex and abstract ideas because you are attaching these abstract ideas to an image and in that way making it more concrete and understandable.  Figurative language can also just make your writing more pleasurable to read and consequently more likely to gain your reader’s thoughtful consideration.  We all like to be entertained, even in just little ways, and are more likely to pay attention to things that seek to interest us.

Now go be the Shakespeare of essay writing.

[1] Orwell, George. "Why I Write." A Collection of Essays. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. 316.