Building Better Analogies

Posted On: 2021-01-18

By Mark

When writing about technical topics, I sometimes use analogies to make it easier to understand. Using analogies to explain digital phenomena is fraught with peril*, but I like to think that (so far) most of my analogies have added to my readers' understanding. For today's post, I thought I'd list three things I keep in mind when writing analogies, to try to make sure they are helpful (or, at least, not harmful.)

  1. Inform, don't argue

    Analogies are useful for getting people up to speed on a topic they might not be familiar with. Those who are already familiar with the topic shouldn't get much out of an analogy, as it's telling them something they already know about. Taking a topic that is complex enough to explain via analogy and trying to also persuade using the same analogy will likely both undermine the quality of the explanation and the strength of the argument.

  2. Expect multiple drafts

    Good analogies are hard. In general, I find that my first attempt at any analogy fails in some obvious way - and thus I just assume that I'll have to try multiple times to find one that works. Sometimes this is a matter of revision (such as clearing up ambiguity), but it more often requires starting over from scratch and finding something completely different to compare it to.

  3. Omit the irrelevant

    Analogies are useful for explaining specific elements of a thing - but they often run the risk of falling apart when describing unrelated or supporting elements. Often, I find my early drafts of an analogy are more story-like: they establish the setting and actors involved before getting into the important bits. Unfortunately, those context-setting details are often poor analogies unto themselves: just because some activity (such as talking to a friend) may work as an analogy for some complex task, any preceding steps (such as going to the friend's residence) are not guaranteed to be analogous to the steps preceding the complex task. Thus, to keep the analogy focused and effective, I strip away such story elements any time they risk reducing clarity. A good analogy with no setting is better than the same analogy with an unrelated setting.

    As an example: when making analogies about activities on the internet, I try to avoid any mention of physical space. This is in large part because the physicality of the internet doesn't really fit with how the actual physical world operates. Visiting a website (for example) is not going to a location - it's an information request and response. Thus, if I'm using an analogy to explain how something on a particular site works, I might describe you intentionally exchanging information with another person, but I'll avoid any mention of where you are or how you got there, as doing so would erode the effectiveness of the analogy.

Hope that helps - whether you're writing your own analogies or giving feedback on others'. As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback, please let me know.