Improving your writing skills is one of the best ways to stand out as a student or as a professional in your chosen field. Whether you are a native speaker or English language learner, you can enroll in a semester-long writing course or join a writer’s workshop. One effective way to immediately enhance your writing skills is to read about and practice how to use similes and metaphors. Whether you’re a student or an experienced professional, understanding how to use similes and metaphors correctly is one of the best ways to elevate your writing skills.

Although some writers may associate similes and metaphors with creative writing and assume neither should be used in a professional setting, this is not true at all. In fact, both can be used in professional writing for a variety of reasons. For example, if you are writing a speech or talking points for an executive, adding a simile or metaphor to the text is a great way to emphasize a point.

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Similes and metaphors are often used in similar ways; therefore, it’s important for writers to have a solid grasp of the difference and when to use each. For starters, both are comparisons between two unconnected things. The trick to discerning one from the other is all in how they are presented.

Similes use of the words “like” or “as” to compare the qualities of one thing to another. They are often more direct in their comparisons. Here are a few examples:

Person writing in notebook

Common similes that use “like”:

Common similes that use “as”:

A metaphor, on the other hand, is a figure of speech that simply states that something is not simply similar to another thing, but actually is that thing. The words “like” and “as” are not used. Many well-known metaphors come from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Here are a few examples:

You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write terrific metaphors. Sure, writing original metaphors may seem a little daunting at first if you’re trying to dream up the perfect metaphor to include in a college essay or a business presentation. For starters, one way to improve your skill as an effective, engaging communicator orally and in writing is by reading both prose and poetry for inspiration. You can also improve your creativity and gain more confidence in your use of similes and metaphors by practicing. Enrolling in a fiction writing or poetry class would be a great way to start.

Why do we use similes and metaphors?

When using similes and metaphors, it’s very important to discuss literal versus figurative language. Literal language is not used to describe something exactly as it is. For example, we can say, “The rose is red.” This would be a literal description, because the language we are using describes the exact color of a particular flower. On the other hand, if you are describing a friend who blushed because she felt embarrassed about something, you could say, “Her cheeks were as red as roses.” This statement would be an example of figurative language because we are trying to describe someone’s appearance through comparison and by using a little hyperbole, or exaggeration. Both similes and metaphors are two types of figurative language. (Of course, her cheeks did not literally turn a rose’s deep shade of red; such a thing is most likely impossible).

Let’s imagine that you have lived in an area that has no access to water, and you get the opportunity to travel and see the ocean for the very first time. This is sure to be a moving and breathtaking experience, and one you will want to relay to your friends back home. It just doesn’t seem like enough to say, “It was big,” or, “It was really cool.” There needs to be more of a descriptive element to your story to help paint the picture for your friends.

This is where similes and metaphors come in. Let’s look at some simile examples first:

In each of those examples, you are asking your readers and listeners to recall other objects and apply the properties of those objects, (like the sky, a mirror, and sunlight), to the ocean to help them experience it in the way you did. 

Looking at the same ocean experience from the standpoint of metaphors, you will see that these comparisons are perhaps a little more subtle, but also full of potent imagery:

When are similes and metaphors used?

There are plenty of reasons to use similes and metaphors, not only in writing but also when giving an oral presentation or simply speaking with a good friend over coffee. If you are in an English or literature class, your first introduction to similes and metaphors might happen when you learn about poetry or narrative writing. It is true that the images created by using these figures of speech can be striking, and therefore are often used in these types of writing.

For business writing:

It can also be beneficial to use similes and metaphors in your everyday speaking and writing. Perhaps you are giving a presentation about a client project at work and need to emphasize a client’s anxiety or that a very complex issue requires the assistance of everyone on the team. You might try using some of the following similes during a meeting or in an email:

Sticking with the same situation, you could just as easily use metaphors to convey the urgency of a pressing issue to your coworkers:

Using similes and metaphors when giving a presentation or writing at work is one way to emphasize points and keep your listeners and/or readers engaged.

For educational and school-related writing:

Students of all ages at all grade levels can learn to use similes and metaphors effectively in writing and speech. Many school teachers at all grade levels spend entire lessons on how to identify and create similes and metaphors. These elements can also be used in an educational environment. Dreaming up similes and metaphors can be a fun activity for kids. If you’re a student looking to learn more about how to use metaphors in your writing, read this blog for more tips.

Obviously, any writing assignment could benefit from more description and more examples to help your reading audience understand your point. Let’s assume you are working on an essay regarding a political topic, and you are trying to convey why this issue is so important to those involved. In this case, using similes and metaphors will give your readers something concrete to tie these ideas to, even if they are unfamiliar with the issue itself. Here are a few similes: 

What about analogies?

Similes and metaphors can sometimes be confused with analogies. All three are quite similar on the surface. Many native English speakers have made the mistake of calling a simile an analogy or an analogy a metaphor. An analogy is a comparison made between two things for the purpose of both demonstrating similarities and providing further explanation. Similes and metaphors are figures of speech; analogies can often contain similes, as you’ll see in the examples here. Speakers and writers often use analogies to explain an idea or get a certain point or argument across to readers or listeners. “Life is like a box of chocolates,” the famous quote from the film Forrest Gump, becomes an analogy when the rest of the quote is added: “You never know what you’re gonna get.” The second part of the statement further explains the comparison.

Many popular analogies come from well-known writers, politicians, and intellectuals. Here are a few:

Let’s practice!

You have probably come across plenty of well-known similes and metaphors in your studies or just in conversation. Take a look at the list below and decide whether the sentence or expression is a simile or metaphor, and why.

  1. “My love is like a red, red rose.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  2. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  3. “This is yesterday’s news.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  4. “Shaking like a leaf on a tree.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  5. “Sick as a dog.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  6.  “That rubbed me the wrong way.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  7. “It’s as cold as the North Pole.” SIMILE / METAPHOR
  8. “America is a melting pot.” SIMILE / METAPHOR

Answer key: 1. Simile 2. Metaphor 3. Metaphor 4. Simile 5. Simile 6. Metaphor 7. Simile 8. Metaphor

For those who are non-native speakers looking for additional practice, try this exercise. In the sentences below, fill in the blanks with the missing word or words to complete the statements.

  1. His reputation is ___good____ gold. We should definitely hire him.
  2. The weather is terrible today. It’s__hot____an oven. 
  3. The two kids fight_____ cats and dogs.
  4.  All he likes to do is watch television. He ____ such a couch potato.
  5. She sang along to her favorite Rhianna hit. “Shine bright ___ a diamond!”

Answer key: 1. as good as  2. as hot as  3. like  4. is 5. Is 6. like

Using similes and metaphors is one of the most common ways for a writer, novice or published, to not only add more descriptive language to their work, but also make their writing more engaging and memorable. We find similes and metaphors everywhere—in famous novels, poems, songs, advertisements, and even business presentations. If you are writing a book, fiction or nonfiction, similes and metaphors are important to help you distinguish your writing.

Improving your understanding of how to use similes and metaphors is only one effective way to advance your writing skills. As you continue improving your writing skills, it’s always a good idea to continue reviewing grammar basics to best ensure you are using words correctly. For example, common prepositions such as ‘in” and “on” can confuse even a native English speaker. If you are a non-native English speaker, you can further enhance your English skills by practicing English pronunciation. There are many other ways to continue growing as a writer. Check out more of Udemy’s English language and writing courses to get started.

Page Last Updated: August 2021

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