Metaphors for writing

In part this post is a response to a recent invitation to think about metaphors used in connection to the process of writing a thesis.

I like the idea of thinking about metaphors for writing. In using metaphor – I have not been particularly self-conscious, just allowing myself to think in a way that explains why the metaphor made sense to me.  

Writing and combing.

I often used to think about the process of writing as similar to combing and plaiting my hair.  I now have dread-locks and so thankfully don’t have to endure the experience apart from the occasional treat of going to a hairdressers to get my locks re-twisted. Each visit to the hair dresser takes about 3 – 4 hours. Before dread-lock, the daily comb, cream and plaiting  – depending on the length of my hair at the time would take about 45 minutes. As a girl child, I really had better things to do. Combing my hair was always an event – that thankfully only happened twice a day (morning and night-time), taking what seemed like a lifetime. 

The process of writing feels similar to the daily ritual of combing and plaiting my hair – in part because of the sheer agony involved. That is – natural afro hair – my natural afro hair is tightly curled and hard to get a comb through. The start of the process was always painful. There is a moment of terror when it feels like I simply won’t be able to do this. But of course I realise that I have no choice. It is not an enjoyable experience.  Not at the start at least. This is not entirely fair, because I love writing. I love the idea of myself as an academic. And of course – after the initial struggle – once my hair is combed through and oiled – it begins to soften. After the initial struggle, it is softer and smoother than anything.

With the initial hair smoothed (the first complete draft if I’m writing) I can begin to section it off, to make partings and work on plaiting. The longer the hair, the quicker the process – the squares sectioned off can be bigger and fewer plaits are required. Short hair – as mine always was – takes more time.

As a child, sitting  between my mother’s knees on the floor – with her combing, oiling, parting and plaiting my hair – I would continually put my hand up to get an idea of how it was all progressing.  This is a quarter done. Then half. And now it is nearly finished.  The plaiting is painful (less painful then the initial comb); you have to pull the hair to make sure there are no nappy edges. That everything is neat and tucked in and that it will last a until the next time morning – or evening.

The point is that writing always felt similar to me – something that was entirely absorbing, that seemed to demand my complete attention. That had to be done. Once I had started my EdD – nothing and no-one was going to stop me from competing it. What initially felt like a complete mess, soon begins to soften and feel gentle, pleasant to stroke. The oils: coconut, jasmine or cocoa –  smells sweet.  And once the parting and plaiting starts – I know I can do this.  

From this point, it’s enjoyable. The process of writing, involving as it does going over and over and over the same few points to make sure they are expressed, shaped how you want them – feels very close to combing each parting, and then plaiting the section of hair. A painful but necessary process that soon becomes enjoyable, that ends with something I am pleased about – but with the acceptance that I will need to do it all again. I have dread locks now. So – much easier to manage on a daily basis, and a regular treat to the hairdressers to be made more beautiful.

Reading and swimming.

Another metaphor I often use is connected to swimming. I’m sure that many people make this comparison.  That is – the most terrifying moment is just getting into the water. Getting started on something.  I completed my EdD a few years ago and now work for a University. I studied while working full time in FE. And was never completely sure that I’d be able to complete the Doctorate – all the very familiar self-doubts about capability and so on. I was always of the view that it was ‘other people’ who taught in universities. Other people who published there work – that sort of thing. I never felt completely sure of my thoughts until I wrote them down. So that moment of beginning – was always exciting and terrifying.

There is always the risk of getting completely lost at sea with no sense of where you are, how you got there and how to get back on dry land. Usually, once I am in the water – I quickly adapt (I love swimming at times used to swim 20 lengths every day before work). Once I get going – it’s fine, as long as I have done the preparation. Then it is entirely pleasurable. It allows me to be another creature, able to survive four hours underwater. There is silence, exclusion and complete absorption.  The entire world could be erupting around me – but – I’m writing so please: do not disturb.


  1. Another interesting bit about combing as a metaphor for writing that your piece exemplifies is everyone's hair is different and the combing/preparing takes different tools and approaches. Not everyone has the same hair; not everyone has the same writing style. Thus, the tools and approaches are different for each. I find metaphors for writing a great help when actually writing, and I appreciate yours. I actually just completed a similar post about golfing and writing with a different twist. ( I enjoyed reading your perspective.

  2. I love both of your metaphors and think they could be extremely useful for teaching writing as well as thinking about writing. I think Josh's point is another helpful way to think about it. One of my friends and co-workers often talks about revision in terms of detailing a car – that the amount and level of work that you do depends on the car and its value.

  3. I once overheard a student during small group discussions say to another student: "Yeah, that's great, but turn it into a metaphor. She loves that!" Apparently I was the only one who thought my fascination with metaphors was a secret. For writing, I frequently use two "dirty" metaphors (fitting given my ecocritical research). The first is of composting (planned blog post coming soon). I hold onto almost all of my "garbage" writing and "cuttings," compiling them into folders and documents that I think I'll never look at again. But inevitably, after months or even years, I'll come back to the pile of compost for an idea or piece of writing that has suddenly become relevant again. The second metaphor I use comes from Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. Bolker writes: "When you sit down to begin a piece of writing, your first aim ought to be to make a mess…to play with your subject the way you used to build mud pies." Inspired by Bolker, I started a document called "Playing in the Mud" which I use to freewrite at the beginning of most of my writing sessions. Giving myself permission to write messily has upped my productivity considerably. Thanks for the great post! It reminded me to get back in the mud!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s