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Warning: Mixed Metaphors May Be Dangerous to the Health of Your Writing

By Julie Wehmeyer

  • He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.
  •  From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-tuned comb.
  • It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.
  • It’s time to grab the bull by the tail and look him in the eye.
  •  I wouldn’t be caught dead there with a ten-foot pole.
  •  It’s time to step up to the plate and lay your cards on the table.
  • He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.
  • You can’t go in there cold turkey with egg on your face.
  • We have to get all our ducks on the same page.
  • I’m sweating like a bullet.

Other than making you chuckle, what do you see wrong with the above statements? What is making you giggle at them? It’s simple. They are all mixed metaphors and practically scream out to the educated reader that the author is not professional, or dare I say it, “is dim as a burned-out light bulb”! They make the reader chuckle, but not in a good way.

So What Exactly is a Metaphor?

Before we discuss why a “mixed” metaphor is bad, we need to define what a metaphor is. A metaphor is different from a simile and a cliché.  Using metaphors is all great and good if done correctly, but often metaphors get so absorbed into our culture that it becomes easy to mix them.  However, a good, well written and thought out metaphor can enhance your writing exponentially.

A metaphor is a way of comparing two unrelated things to make your writing more vivid and memorable. It is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison in which a word or phrase usually used for one thing is applied to another. Using metaphors is all great and wonderful if done correctly, but often metaphors get so absorbed into our culture that it becomes easy to mix them.  all the world's a stageShakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” is a great metaphor making the point that the world we are all actors in the plays of our lives.

Other good examples of metaphors are:

  • He drowned in a sea of grief. This makes sense because “drowned” and “sea” go together, and your mind can understand the comparison of the emotion of grief to how a sea can be all encompassing. However, if you had mixed metaphors and stated, “He stumbled along on a sea of grief,” that makes no sense, even though you can understand someone stumbling along in sorrow; but the comparison to the “sea” makes no sense.
  • She is fishing in troubled waters. Again, (another water metaphor), this makes sense. If you stated, “she was shopping in troubled waters,” it would mean the same thing, but it wouldn’t make sense.

And you may have noticed in the first paragraph of this article, I used a metaphor referring to a writer as being “dim as a burned out light bulb.”


A Metaphor is NOT a Simile.

The big difference between a metaphor and simile is that a metaphor does not use the word “like.”  Shakespeare did not say, the “world is like a stage.” If he had that would have been a simile, not a metaphor.

Using the examples above, you could say, “he is like a man drowning in a sea of grief,” or “she is like a fish in troubled waters.” You have to be careful with similes, however, in the same manner as you have to be careful with mixed metaphors. “he is like a man singing in a sea of grief,” really doesn’t make sense.

A Metaphor is Not a Cliché Either / Or Is It?.

Also, keep in mind, a metaphor is not a cliche either, or is it? A reliance on cliches can easily lead to mixed metaphors.

Some common cliche’s:

  • A diamond in the rough / Brave as a lion
  • Every cloud has a silver lining / Everything that glitters is not gold.
  • Sent a shiver down my spine / Heart-stopping fear.

Below are some examples of just how easy it is to make a mixed metaphor using everyday cliches.

  • Brave as a lion in the rough.
  • Every cloud is not gold.
  • Sent heart-stopping fear down my spine.

Why is it So Bad to Mix Metaphors?

A mixed metaphor is quite simply bad form. When you combine two unrelated items together, especially when mixing up cliches, it can look forced at best, and at worst it appears silly and ridiculous. It SHOUTS poor writing.

Metaphors are extremely image-driven, and if those images don’t make sense, they confuse and jar the reader. One really great piece of advice I received when I was first starting out as a writer was “if you can’t draw it, don’t write it.”

We all remember when President Obama referred to himself as a “green behind the ears senator.” The correct usage would have been “wet behind the ears.” No one is green behind the ears! The correct metaphor is “wet behind the ears” which refers to a new born baby. You would refer to a baby seedling just growing out of the ground as “green,” but you would never refer to a plant as having ears. That comment caused guffaws throughout the nation!

Another example is, “wake up and smell the coffee.” That makes complete sense, and the imagery leads you to know what the writer means. However, if someone written, “Open your eyes and smell the coffee on the wall” you’d be wondering what on earth they were talking about! This is a mixed metaphor of “Wake up and smell the coffee” and “Open your eyes and see the writing on the wall.” Both metaphors mean the same thing, but when mixed, it is just nonsensical.

Can You Ever Mix Metaphors Intentionally?

Of course you can. If you are writing dialogue for a character and the mixed metaphor fits the language that character would use, then by all means do it. You can also use mixed metaphors to inject a bit of humor or clarity in your writing, if it is clear to your reader that it is what you are doing. One example might be to say, “We will burn that bridge when we come to it,” mixing the metaphors of “We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” and “Don’t burn your bridges.” In this instance, the metaphor would indicate the desire to push through and destroy any opposition. So, in this case, mixing the metaphor makes sense, but it has to be done with thought. Most mixed metaphors are the result of not thinking.

Metaphors in and of themselves are very effective writing tools. They are a way to use language to liven up your writing and provide strong imagery, but you must be careful and think about them when you use them. And use them sparingly. And be careful and cognizant when mixing them.

You don’t want people laughing at your writing because of poorly placed mixed metaphors. Let the professionals at Awen Books and More help. We are great at spotting these things!


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The Importance of Formatting Your Manuscript

by Julie Wehmeyer

Formatting your document, whether it is a blog, manuscript for a periodical, a screenplay, or a novel, plays a major role in the success or failure of your piece. It greatly improves your chances of catching the attention of a publisher and having a successful publishing experience. Even if you self-publish, unless you convert your manuscript yourself, many self-publishing companies now also require that you abide by basic formatting styles so they can convert your book to the proper file format.

Editors frequently bemoan the unprofessionalism of the manuscripts they receive – from the documents being submitted on fancy stationary and/or colored paper, to unreadable fonts, colored ink, lack of pagination, and various other sundry issues. If you send a poorly formatted document to an editor, you will likely have to pay more for their services. Why pay someone else for basic formatting that you can easily do yourself?

If you are submitting to a traditional publisher, it is always recommended to contact them and ask for a copy of their submission specifications. Most publishers have these available on their websites and they are very specific. Your manuscript will be rejected without anyone even reading it if you do not follow these guidelines. There are some very basic guidelines that most organizations will require which are a good place to start.

proper formatting so your manuscript isn't thrown away

  • Use a 1 inch margin on all sides.
  • Use a title page. On this title page, align left and single space in the header near the top of the page your contact information including your legal name, phone number and email address. This only goes on the title page.
  • About halfway down the page, center the title of your manuscript typed in caps.
  • Do not number the title page. Begin numbering with the first page of the text.
  • Use a header on each subsequent page which includes your name, title of your work (in all caps) and page number. Again, do not put contact info on each page.
  • Start each chapter on a new, numbered page, one-third of the way down.
  • Chapter number and chapter title should be in all caps separated by two hyphens. Example: CHAPTER TWO — JOE MEETS SALLY
  • The body of chapter should start four to six lines below the chapter title.
  • Indent five spaces (1/2 inch) for each new paragraph.
  • Double space entire text with no extra lines between paragraphs.
  • Use standard font, 12 point (Times, New Roman, Arial or Courier).
  • Do not right align the text.
  • Use italics for italicized words as opposed to underlying (that’s old school).
  • Try not to use “two spaces” between sentences. For those of us who learned to type on a typewriter, this is a hard habit to break. It is always good to use the ‘Replace’ feature to check for this, and it is the easiest way to make sure you don’t miss any instances of this in your manuscript.
  • Use 20-lb paper, white paper.

Following the above basic rules can greatly enhance your chances of having an agent or editor actually looking at your manuscript. You want to maintain a level of professionalism and not give the publisher any excuse to “round file” your manuscript (throw it in a trash can), or have any type of unfavorable response to your submission.

In addition, to the above basic guidelines, different markets require different formatting. Many scientific and academic manuscripts require the use of the APA formatting style which has been the standard since the 1920’s when it was developed. Scientific and academic publishing formatting standards can be complicated and frustrating if you are not used to them. APA formatting will be covered more in depth in a subsequent article.

Screenwriting and plays require yet another different set of formatting and will also be covered more in depth in a subsequent article.

Here at Awen Books and More we are highly skilled and familiar with formatting documents, and can help you with proofreading, editing and formatting your document to help ensure a positive response from publishers.

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Do I Really Need an Editor?

Congratulations! You finished your book. That is a huge accomplishment and something to be proud of. It can be tempting to tell yourself that you’re done now, but there is still a lot that needs to be done before your book is ready for publication. The next step in your journey is to find an editor.

But my friends and family read the book, and they said it’s great! Do I really need an editor?

YES! Feedback from friends and family is great. It’s even better if you have someone who has a background in English to look over your draft. That doesn’t mean you can get away without hiring an editor, however. Your friends and family have your best interest at heart, but they are also biased. They care about you, and they won’t be reading the story with a critical eye the same way that a professional editor will.

A professional editor will catch the fact that Suzy was wearing a green shirt at the beginning of Chapter Two, but that Mark described her shirt as red in Chapter Nine. A professional editor will notice that Jack’s reaction to dropping his ice cream in Chapter Seven doesn’t make sense based on the personality you developed for him earlier in the story. A good professional editor will be able to offer suggestions to help you fix plot holes or an odd character development. Professional editors spend their lives looking for details like this, where your friends and family have not.

Even having your old English professor, or your friend who studied English in college is not a substitute for a professional editor. This person will probably catch a lot of your mistakes, and their input will lead to your copy being much cleaner than it was before they looked it over, which is great. But it is not a substitute for a professional editor. There are a number of important things that a professional editor is trained to look for that someone with an English degree may or may not be aware of. Critical elements of a good story such as knowing when to show instead of tell, or what type of story arc is suitable for each genre, or industry specific formatting issues will be something that a professional editor is more aware of than someone who has not devoted their career to it.

Additionally, an editor will have spent many more hours editing than your friend with an English degree. Who would you trust more? A surgeon with 1000 hours of experience, or a surgeon with 50? A handyperson who has worked for 100 hours in the field, or one who just graduated from his or her trade school and has only worked as an apprentice for 30 hours? While the 10,000 hours to become an expert rule has been debunked, it is still likely that an individual who has logged more hours in a particular field will provide superior work.

What if I plan to submit to a traditional publisher? Won’t they provide me with an editor?

Yes, they will. This doesn’t mean you can get away with not hiring an editor of your own however. Publishing houses and agents receive so many manuscripts that they often just throw out anything that isn’t polished copy. If you want to increase your chances of having your manuscript accepted, you probably want to have a professional editor look it over. The only way around this is if you are 1) writing non-fiction and you have already been accepted by a publisher based on your query alone, or 2) an author who has already established a working relationship with a publisher and you are writing a book that is already under contract. (Sometimes this can happen for a new writer with a non-fiction book proposal, but you need to have a blog or published articles to prove your writing ability.)If you are a new, unknown writer trying to get your first book deal, then you need to make sure your manuscript is as close to perfect as possible.

It is exceptionally hard to get your book accepted with a traditional publisher. This is because the market is oversaturated and no one wants to take a gamble on a new book unless it is absolutely exceptional. Hiring a professional editor to look over your manuscript before sending it to agents and publishers will greatly increase your chances for success.

I plan to self-publish. Isn’t the whole point of self-publishing to open the way for anyone and everyone to get published?

Yes, yes, and yes! Technically you can self-publish without hiring an editor. However you run the risk of publishing something that looks unpolished and unprofessional. This hurts your chances of getting people to buy your book. It also means that future books that you publish will not be taken seriously. If you are planning to self-publish, you should at least budget for an editor and a professional cover design. This greatly improves your chances for sales and repeat buyers if you decide to publish anything else.

So, I guess I need to hire an editor…

Yes, you do. Stay tuned for articles on what to look for in an editor, and what types of editors there are and why it makes a difference.

Unsure of whether you want to self-publish or hire a traditional publisher? Start with Should I Self-Publish or Take a Traditional Route? Part One!

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