Describing different writing techniques and explaining how to keep your writing on track present a challenge. When we were designing a workshop on paragraphing for second-year Life Science undergraduates, Consultant Fellow Elanor Dymott and I worked with a series of metaphors for writing, including a dog race, the red thread and MEAL.
Humour helps make images stick, and oils the wheels of learning. Watching an amusing video of a canine obstacle race, many undergraduates identified with the unruly Labrador endlessly distracted by tasty titbits along the way. What advice might they have for that dog, we wondered? ‘Focus!’ they replied. A good metaphor for writing.
A unifying central theme running through a piece of writing can be thought of as a red thread – a Scandinavian idea. In our workshops, we made the metaphor literal, stringing a bright red washing line across the room to represent the main argument, with students encouraged to hang their paragraphs from it. Every paragraph had to connect to the thread.
MEAL is a well-known mnemonic for paragraph structure, standing for ‘main idea’, ‘evidence’, ‘analysis’, and the ‘link’ to the thread of the argument. We used the metaphor of a satisfying meal to explain that most paragraphs contain all of these elements. We pegged up a series of images of different courses to represent the elements, from starter to coffee. Then we asked the students to sort out a jumble of sentences from sample paragraphs and peg these out in the order they thought worked best: a ‘writing meal’, as it were.
Another metaphor I’ve always found invaluable is the concept of ‘parachutists and truffle hunters’, coined by 20th-century French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. He divided historians into parachutists, who range widely over their terrain, taking a bird’s-eye, broad-brush view of the past, and truffle hunters, who sniff and dig for treasures, looking for the revelations offered by precise and detailed work in the archives. In any academic project, a writer needs to be both parachutist and truffle hunter. You need to float high enough above the ground to see the big picture and low enough to search systematically for those nuggets of information – the ‘truffles’.
We all learn differently, and it’s helpful to discover which conceptual metaphors work for our own writing.