Leading Professional Learning

Using Metaphor to Explore Writing Processes

14 views 1

Author: Christian Knoeller

Summary: In this article, Christian Knoeller describes a metaphor writing assignment that offers an effective alternative to instructional materials that present writing processes in overly simple and mechanical ways. Knoeller argues that metaphor enables examinations of how we compose and revise, how we go beyond static processes, and how we become more of who we are through writing. The article includes student and teacher excerpts of extended metaphorical writing that illustrate these ideas. Point of use for this resource may include planning/design of a longitudinal professional development partnership or the facilitation of any writing session using Knoeller’s metaphor writing assignment. For teachers of writing, this article provides evidence of the impact that the exercise–and metaphor as a mode for analysis–can have on writers from middle school through college and beyond.

Original Date of Publication: 2004

The writing process model, as conventional wisdom currently holds, has precipitated worthwhile innovations in English teaching in the decades since its inception, encouraging among other things the extensive use of collaborative activities such as peer response groups. Historically, however, instructional materials and classroom practices designed to “teach” the writing process have tended to oversimplify things, all too often offering prescriptive procedures—or even exercises—in place of reflective practice. One of our highest aims as teachers of writing is arguably to help students develop a more complex and flexible concept of their own writing processes. I believe that student writers ultimately stand to gain much from examining how they write and revise. Ideally such reflections will yield a fuller understanding of writing processes generally. There are, of course, a variety of ways to achieve this.

One of several process-based classroom strategies that I have found successful over the years with freshman composition students at the college level is a “process journal,” allowing reflection on successive revisions of major compositions—a detailed account of the “processes” involved. Other teachers have described the success of similar methods with middle and high school students. Such student reflections provide a basis for detailed conversations with classmates about writing processes and an excellent opportunity for peer teaching, as students collectively develop a repertoire of strategies—as well as a lexicon of their own making for discussing them. Another natural opportunity to discuss process, of course, is found within the workings of peer response groups. Student writers can be asked, for example, to pose specific questions to classmates who will be commenting on their drafts. Such “dialogical” approaches encourage student writers to consider process as well as to reflect upon the text of their revisions. Yet perhaps my favorite way of guiding student writers to investigate their own writing processes is a less common one: through metaphor.

I date my pedagogical interest in metaphor to when I was first aspiring to teach twenty-five years ago. As a finalist for a part-time English position at a private alternative high school, I was asked by the headmaster to prepare sample lesson plans. I had recently come across the widely anthologized “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, a poem set in the upper Midwest, a different world from the one of students I would soon teach from Encinitas and Solana Beach, California. Like much of Wright’s work, the compact piece is filled with resonant images like these: “I see the bronze butterfly, / Asleep on the black trunk, / Blowing like a leaf in green shadow” or “In a field of sunlight between two pines, / The droppings of last year’s horses / Blaze up into golden stones.” While Wright’s tone is almost colloquial, there is an undercurrent of metaphor running throughout the poem, with images taking on symbolic overtones. Reading those lines, the subject for my first lesson plans came to me: metaphor and its linguistic twin, simile.

Years later as a graduate student, I encountered Lakoff and Johnson’s influential book Metaphors We Live By, which proposes a theory of “conceptual metaphor.” The authors point out the potential implications of metaphor beyond its conventional literary connotations:

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language….We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action…metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical. (2003, 1-6)

In fact, metaphor can be viewed as a cognitive tool—commonplace precisely because it proves so useful. Many of the figures of speech that abound anywhere one cares to look, including casual conversation, can be shown to rely upon a logical, underlying system of such conceptual metaphors. According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphors often help us understand and discuss the unfamiliar and abstract by “mapping” from the concrete experience of a “source domain.” To say that “life is a journey,” for instance, allows us to draw on everyday knowledge to talk about the ineffable.

The theory of conceptual metaphor has proven conducive to exploring the writing process. Barbara Tomlinson (1984, 1988) has examined how published writers frequently employ a variety of metaphors when describing how they write. One might, for example, liken the process of assembling a collection of poems to tending a garden. Indeed, publishing authors commonly rely on metaphor when describing writing processes, particularly when teaching. To illustrate: In a recent essay, famed fiction writer John Barth contrasts how two widely admired authors liken writing a novel to taking a journey. They employ the same metaphor to different ends, yet Barth ultimately extends that metaphor to reconcile both their views with his own.

[Joseph] Heller declared to our seminar that he always wrote his novels’ closing chapter first: How would he know how to get there, he asked rhetorically, if he didn’t know where he was going….[ E. L.] Doctorow, on the contrary…is alleged to have said that a novelist needn’t see beyond his headlights—which I take to mean that knowing the direction of the next plot turn is navigational data enough; that bridges farther down the road may be crossed when one arrives at them….Something may be said for putting off the crossing of bridges until one reaches them, but it helps to know ahead of time that there’s a bridge or two to be crossed, and whether it looks to be a footbridge or the Golden Gate. (2004, 23)

In truth, the advice that Heller and Doctorow provide to aspiring novelists may not be as contradictory as it first appears, since their accounts of composing are not necessarily mutually exclusive; after all, when writing—as when traveling—one can in fact cross much uncharted territory to reach an anticipated destination. Even this brief example suggests the utility—and versatility—of metaphor when it comes to talking about how we write. Yet why would authors routinely resort to such metaphors to explain how they write? After combing through thousands of interviews and essays, Tomlinson discovered that certain sets, or “families,” of conceptual metaphors recur. I wondered what this might mean for student writers—and then the idea dawned on me: Why not invite students to devise their own metaphors for writing processes?

Introducing the Metaphor Assignment

I have found it beneficial to initially present this project by using models, prompts, and rubrics. Models read aloud in class can include essays written by former students, as well as those that I have authored as illustrations. When time allows for actually beginning drafts in class, I often write alongside students, trying out a new metaphor every time. The truth is, I can’t resist. Among the metaphors with which I have personally played over the years is one of my favorites: “Why writing and rewriting research (over and over) is like installing a new bathroom in an old farmhouse.” The metaphor, albeit idiosyncratic, actually provides a ready-made framework for depicting messy revision processes. I sometimes model the logic of such metaphor essays by providing a brief illustration, whether orally or as part of a written prompt such as the following:

Suppose you were an amateur artist who paints landscapes. In a detailed, step-by-step manner, you might describe the corresponding aspects of each task (i.e., writing and painting). For example, choosing a subject to paint might be likened to selecting a topic…matting and framing the finished work to formatting and printing a document—and, of course, the many steps in between. Be sure to provide plenty of specific details, sufficient for readers unfamiliar with the activity you have selected (e.g., in the case of my example, someone who doesn’t paint). In the opening or closing (or both), be sure to summarize the insights you have arrived at about yourself as a writer by exploring the metaphor.

Allowing students to share their own partial drafts at this stage, immediately after having written them in class, serves as an effective prewriting strategy, invariably modeling a variety of possible metaphors. My hope is to encourage creativity by suggesting a range of acceptable metaphors. Any number of potential metaphors will serve well, after all, provided they are developed fully. Another way of encouraging students to be original and imaginative is to share a variety of metaphors used in previous years. For instance, here are a few of the metaphors proposed by students in an introductory college writing class at a smaller, branch campus of the University of Wisconsin that serves many “first-generation” college students from rural communities, accounting for the agrarian references: building a home, buying a new car, cutting the grass, painting a house, waxing cross-country skis, and setting up a milking parlor in the barn. English teaching majors attending a major Midwestern research university, on the other hand, select metaphors that reflect a growing range of life experiences—as well as considerable imagination: choreographing dances, taking photographs, dispatching trucks with freight, interviewing for a job, parenting, running a marathon, and performing magic.

For a metaphor to serve as a “vehicle” for examining one’s own writing processes in meaningful ways, it must be explored at length. Accordingly, when making such assignments, I often specify length (typically 1–2 pages for freshman writers, 3–4 for future English teachers). Moreover, model papers read aloud in class illustrate how the metaphor can be developed in the manner of a conventional comparison/contrast essay. This is a good time for a minilesson on rhetorical form, explaining that while such an essay can be organized either by the “block method” (treating the writing processes at length in a separate section) or in a point-by-point fashion, I generally advocate the latter since it allows for more detailed exploration of the metaphor. In addition, a brief model can also be embedded in the prompt for the assignment itself. While prompts for such an assignment can readily be tailored to specific groups of students, the following sample prompt presents a version that I have used recently with undergraduate English teaching majors:

Sample Prompt (outlines the expectations of the metaphor assignment)

Compare your own experiences as a writer with another activity in which you participate and that you know well. Use whatever metaphor you choose to explore your own approach to and beliefs about writing—especially the process by which you write. Consider a variety of possible metaphors before settling on one since this choice in turn determines the focus of this reflective essay and dictates the kinds of insights about your own ways of writing and writing processes more generally. Be sure to address also the implications of your metaphor—and any insights that you arrived at while composing this piece—for teaching writing.


Your essays will be evaluated on the basis of (1) the aptness of the metaphor, (2) the thoroughness of the comparison, (3) insights into writing processes, and (4) discussion of implications for teaching, as well as (5) the unity and organization of the composition as a whole, and (6) correctness of grammar and usage. We will also set aside class time for peer response before these essays are revised for submission.

Finally, the rubric can also be used to signal explicit expectations to student writers—for example, in the case of this assignment, calling attention to the choice and development of the metaphor itself and awarding credit accordingly.

Student Insights into the Writing Process

The metaphor assignment yields many kinds of insights into writing. Some correspond to “steps” of conventional process models; others address interpersonal and rhetorical concerns, such as audience, as well as more introspective ones, such as self-discovery. Importantly, in their essays, preservice teachers also advocate related process-based instructional practices. Keeping commentary brief, the remainder of this article provides illustrations of each of these types of insights.

Prewriting and composing. Depending on the metaphor employed, prewriting can take a number of forms. Cecilia*, who likened writing to parenting, describes it with reverence and excitement:

I was astounded by my pregnancy like I often am when a germ of an idea for a paper reveals itself to me. I say to myself, “Where did that come from?” That’s fabulous. I can absolutely work with that. My paper does not yet have focus; it is unwritten, unedited, unpolished. But it does have life. It is ready to be born.

Margarite, a distance runner, describes the value of journals for prewriting and goal setting. Given the importance placed on athletics by many adolescents, sports metaphors are perennial favorites: “Often the hardest part of any task whether it is writing or running is simply getting started….In the pre-write [and] the pre-run one must formulate and organize their thoughts; for me, I have always used the same techniques in writing and running: I keep a journal. In writing, a journal allows me to get ideas out.”

Student choice in topic selection is essential to motivation, according to Maria, who emphasized the importance of this prewriting task through another extracurricular metaphor:

One decision that I had to make after deciding to join the school band was what instrument to play…[which] resembles the dilemmas students have when choosing a research topic. Some questions to consider when choosing a research topic include, is it too broad or narrow? Will this topic be difficult to research? Will my instructor appreciate my choice and will it be an original selection?…A topic that I would enjoy researching would be World War II and the resistance movements in Europe. This topic directly affects me because my family was a part of this resistance, it has many available sources, and it is a narrow topic compared to the large topic of the entire World War. My interest in this topic would be evident in my writing, and I would be able to create an interesting and informative paper for my reader.

Another aspect of prewriting readily explored through metaphor is organization. Chelsea likens a writer’s initial notes to cross-stitch patterns:

When I am trying to decide the topic or focus of a paper, I think about as many angles to the paper as I can. I get a mental image of how the paper will look when I’m finished. Once I start to develop the paper, I take notes….Like writing, sometimes I look at cross-stitch charts many times before finally deciding which design [to follow]….[These charts are] like my notes when writing, something I can refer back to when working on a project.

Writing in many imaginative genres involves first choosing a point of view. Artemis explores this prewriting task in depth by likening it to composing a photograph:

When I am photographing, I must first consider the composition of a shot—beginning with what angle will most successfully capture what it is I am taking a picture of….The same rhetorical questions apply when I am composing a poem….For example, the subject of an eroding marriage could be treated in a variety of ways and from a variety of perspectives. How would the message and overall effect of the poem change if I adopted the voice of the wife, as opposed to the husband or children? What might the point of view of the husband’s mother be? What could the description of just one devastating moment in the family’s disorderly kitchen illuminate about this failing marriage?

Finally, some students, such as Ross, use metaphor to get at the recursiveness of prewriting: “One of the real beauties of writing is how easy it can be to start over. I know that when I begin a poem or a paper, the first few lines or sentences very rarely end up being in the finished work….Just like in golf, you cannot get frustrated with a poor start. Some of the greatest rounds in the history of the game began with the first drive landing in the rough.”

Revising and editing. Many metaphors seem particularly conducive to exploring revision—thankfully, since revising is central to peer response and other process-based instructional strategies. Notice how the following sports metaphor distinguishes between various revision tasks, while suggesting their gravity:

More often than not, your essay or football play will be flawed. This is when editing and practice come into play. You must read and re-read your essay, silent and aloud. This will help you catch grammar mistakes and spelling errors, as well as sentences that don’t make much sense. Along the same lines, you won’t know how your play will work until you practice it, and find out the blocking schemes allow a linebacker to move through untouched and decimate your quarterback. This step entails lots of trial and error and revision, revision, revision.

Using anther sports metaphor, rowing, Ann highlights a range of revision tasks:

By looking at the writing process through the lens of my passion, rowing, I see how important the revision step is in writing. A full 2/3 of the rowing season is spent changing positions of each rower, trying to decide which person works best where. Like rearranging paragraphs, deciding on the impact of the written piece, looking for statements and quotes that best support the thesis, and then by simply looking for any small flaws to be corrected and adjusted, the writer can make the paper live up to its full potential.

Ferris likened songwriting—a specialized type of writing—to basketball, emphasizing the ideal of balance. “The idea of revision is ever present in the songwriting process because of the delicate balance that needs to be struck between the music, the lyrics, the melody, and the pace of the song,” Ferris writes. “Constant revision allows for a world to be created within each song and this balance between the elements to be perfected.”

Other metaphors, such as performing on piano, emphasize the importance of peer response to revision. “Peer editing a paper is like peer critiquing a musical piece,” Maria writes:

I choose my audience very carefully when playing for an audience for the first time. I want constructive criticism, and therefore I prefer to have my peer musicians as well as my conductor or private instructor hear me play aloud for the first time….When I have read and reread [the paper] so many times that I am unable to find any mistakes, I then like to read my paper aloud to my family or a group of my close friends in order to get their reactions.

Inevitably, many metaphors help to distinguish between copyediting and more substantive revisions, which Henry frames here in terms of audience:

Next is the recurring introspection of one’s work known as revision. Review the effect and analyze how successful it was. If the audience did not rave as you had anticipated, ask yourself why….Introspection is vital to the revision process, both in magic and in literature. Revision entails more than correcting small, superficial errors.

Occasionally, metaphors lead students to recognize that their own personal preferences as writers are not universals shared by everyone else and to ponder the implications of such individual differences for the classroom, as Persephone does here:

When I teach, I will have to not limit myself to [my own] process of writing. I will have to make sure that when I begin to teach, I will explore and expand more ways of how the writing process can work….I’ve come to notice that although this process works best for me, it may not work best for my students.

Beyond the Process Model

Many students use their metaphors to explore rhetorical concerns, such as audience, as well as more introspective ones, such as self-discovery. Let me provide an illustration of each. Dominique, an accomplished young dancer, spoke in terms of the “self-discovery” involved in choreography—and in writing:

The idea of crafting a thesis statement or creating a dance doesn’t happen over night, but involves a journey of self-discovery. Not only does dancing and writing communicate to the audience, but it helps the students know more about themselves as teenager[s] growing into a young adult[s]. Dancing brings confidence and writing gives satisfaction with the experience of peers reading a student’s own words. When I choreograph a dance, my thoughts are expressed through kinetic movements and phrases….The writing process is the same, as the idea is first born in the mind and then [transcribed] onto paper.

Rhetorical concerns such as audience and genre, on the other hand, can take on almost interpersonal dimensions by way of metaphor, as Henry, the aspiring magician, aptly describes:

Without anyone to be mystified there cannot truly be any magic. Hence, each trick, each feat, must be carefully crafted to the audience that will bear witness to it. Whether trying to impress an eight-year-old guessing the card they selected from the deck or sawing someone in half, one needs the right trick for the right audience. Writing has proved to be no exception to this imperative of audience. A diary entry takes on a significantly different tone than does a formal analytic paper, a difference in tone that is largely a function of whom the [author] believes will be reviewing the text. In a diary, the writing is a visibly personal enterprise, and as such a degree of informality and vulnerability is often the result. However, with respect to more public projects, everything from diction to structure is heavily contingent upon the nature of the assumed reader.

Implications for Teaching

Finally, many preservice and practicing teachers find metaphor a good way of discussing instructional issues, ranging from specific strategies such as student choice in topic selection to more philosophical ones, such as keeping an open mind about how to teach writing. This seems in keeping with National Writing Project credos about grounding classroom practice in our personal experience as writers.

Take Aimee, for example, who uses her metaphor to advocate letting students choose their own writing topics. “Pick a good partner when you are playing Euchre,” she writes.

I will only be partners with someone that I know….Picking a good topic is essential….I think that when I am a teacher, I will definitely let my students pick their own topics. It makes the assignment more personal and specific to their individual needs. It also encourages effort and pride…and it gives them the opportunity to learn more about themselves as writers.

In terms of teacher response to student drafts, Ferris uses a sports metaphor to make an argument reminiscent of Mina Shaughnessy’s seminal work on error, a conviction based on his own experience:

Mistakes are also a crucial part of developing basketball knowledge. . . . I feel that the process of teaching young writers in the classroom to learn from their mistakes is one that is of tremendous importance. This is a delicate process however, because we as instructors have to take into account the insecurities of young writers and their creative works. If a student knows from the beginning that he or she can actually benefit from mistakes, and that a faulty representation in a written work can be molded into an effective piece, then their confidence level increases and their writing in turn benefits from it. . . . The balance between constructive criticism and positive reinforcement.

Also addressing teacher response to draft writing, Dominique emphasizes the importance of detailed and timely feedback to enable revision:

Structured criticism and feedback help me to become more creative and effective in writing and choreographing. This is exactly why teaching a student how to craft a thesis statement is like teaching a dancer how to perform. . . .[W]hen teaching students how to develop a thesis, the teacher must break down every single step in order for the students to grasp the idea of developing a clear and concise thesis statement.

Similarly, Artemis espouses a philosophy of instruction, grounded in the metaphor of photography, that places response to student writing at the center of a process-based pedagogy:

Most importantly, however, is the provision of time and motivation to complete all of the stages within the process. This requirement means furnishing students with ample opportunity to plan and compose in class, as well as a means to receive substantial feedback so that they can refine and introduce new perspectives to their “completed” work. As the analogous processes of photography and writing illustrate, teachers need to scaffold students and offer them the inspiration and confidence to explore each stage of the writing process, and be pleasantly surprised by the expected—and unexpected—ways their own results can reward them.

Using metaphors for writing with any class is ultimately an excellent way to emphasize variety and versatility: there is not, after all, one right way to write. In fact, I would argue that this assignment offers an effective answer to instructional materials that present writing processes in overly simple and mechanical ways. I encourage preservice teachers to enter the writing classroom with an open mind, alert to unexpected instructional opportunities.

Responding to Metaphor Essays

So, how do I respond to such essays? Frequently, I call attention to the originality and ingenuity of the metaphors the students have devised. In a composition class, I encourage them above all to continue reflecting on how they write in light of the metaphor; in English education classes, I emphasize thinking about instructional implications: specific ways that they can put their insights about process into practice when shaping writing assignments. I praised Persephone, for example, for “suggest[ing] the need for a teacher to remain flexible and versatile so as to adapt instruction in ways that are effective for students with varied interest, aptitudes, and indeed, learning styles.”
Other essays are more challenging. Consider Ray, who lamented teacher comments he had received in the past. Because they dwelled on the negative, he felt they were demoralizing:

I may have used great diction, or good transitions, or an awesome pun, but it gets overlooked. Upon the return of my paper, I flip quickly to my favorite section only to find no comments or feedback whatsoever. By ignoring the things that the writer does well, it make[s] the recipient wonder if the critic is really paying attention. . . . It makes the [student] writer ask, ‘Should I bother to write good or interesting information, or should I just focus on not mak[ing] spelling or grammar errors?’

Ray’s observations implicitly pose a challenge, of course, to all teachers of writing—and moreover a challenge to himself as a future teacher. Clearly, such soul-searching deserves a thoughtful response. I am forever encouraging preservice teachers not only to emulate the excellence of mentors but also to learn by “negative example”; that is, to focus on positive alternatives. So I wrote the following on the back Ray’s paper: “Notice that your depiction of the response pro-vided to student writers is highly critical, suggesting that too many teachers provide superficial comments only, or, worse yet, negative ones that are liable to discourage student writers. By implication, I suspect that when you teach writing and comment on student papers, you might strive to balance constructive criticism with praise, encourage originality, and suggest (rather than demand) a wider range of revisions. I applaud these aims.”

Sharing the Same Road

Insights such as these arise naturally as students explore their metaphors. And these ideals about teaching writing are so deeply felt—grounded in one’s experience as a student and a writer, in a way that metaphor alone allows. Somehow it seems fitting to give the last word to the student, Matthew, whose metaphor for writing process gave rise to the title for this article, “Driving Home at Midnight in a Dense Fog.” Like many of his preservice classmates, he hopes to let his own students explore metaphors for process themselves:

Approaching writing in the classroom as a metaphor, and allowing the students to practice this approach in much the same way we have here in [this course], would be an effective way to get the students’ minds creatively working. Like typical high school students, I would expect my classroom to groan some about the assignment, but once they started to brainstorm and let their creativity flow, I know they would enjoy it. I am confident, that they would also be eager to share their metaphors with the rest of the class. I am also sure common themes would emerge, even though each individual’s idea is unique. Themes such as the journey, making choices, and knowing where to begin and end would all likely find their ways into each paper in some way or form. For me, whenever I am driving on the highway late at night, I will remember this assignment and think about the process of writing, and how everyone is a writer sharing the same road.

*Throughout the article, students are referred to by pseudonyms.


Barth, J. 2004. “All Trees Are Oak Trees….” Poets & Writers 32 (1), 19-25.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. 2003. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shaughnessy, M. 1977. Errors and Expectations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tomlinson, B. 1984. “Talking About the Composing Process: The Limitations of Retrospective Accounts.” Written Communication 1(4): 429-445.

Tomlinson, B. 1988. “Tuning, Tying, and Training Texts: Metaphors for Revision.” Written Communication 5 (1): 58-81.

Wright, J. 1963. “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” In The Branch Will Not Break. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Original Source: National Writing Project, http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/1790

Would you recommend this resource to others?