by Elena Shvidko

5 Visual Metaphors to Understand Academic Writing


Is the concept of academic writing difficult for you? Let’s try to make sense out of it by using fun pictures. And here is the first one:

Skeleton (Outline)

single human skeleton on white

You are probably wondering, “What does a skeleton have to do with writing?”  Well if you look at the skeleton, a frame is the only thing you can see.  And by the shape of this frame it’s pretty obvious that this is a skeleton of a human being, not a cat, or a bird.  The unique organization of the bones shapes the skeleton of a human being and makes you recognize it and distinguish it from the skeletons of birds and animals.

The same concept applies to an outline of an academic essay, or any piece of writing for that matter.  The outline helps you clearly see the shape of your essay.  And not only you can differentiate between different writing genres by looking at the outlines, but you can also clearly see how you can develop a real creature-essay out of the skeleton-outline.  The outline shows the relationships among your ideas and themes, it identifies the main and supporting ideas—in other words, it shows the hierarchy of the ideas.

I find it extremely helpful to outline and organize ideas before the actual writing process.  The outline can surely keep you on track once you get engaged into the composing process.  In addition, as I mentioned, the outline helps you see the places in your draft where particular ideas may fit better.  Let’s say you are writing an essay about public speaking and you feel that more support is needed in your draft.  You may want to do extra readings or add personal examples.  So if you have an outline of your draft, you will have no difficulty placing those new supporting details—once you find them—in the “right spot” in the draft.

From my personal experience, when the outlining stage is not skipped, the writing process becomes less burdensome.  Some may think that outlining takes away the time that you could spend on the actual writing process.  The truth is: It actually saves time!  Once you have a plan, you will less likely “wander around” trying to organize your ideas and find connections between them.  So my suggestion would be never skip it! This is particularly important on timed-writing assignments, such as TOEFL writing. Trust me, the two minutes that you spend on sketching your ideas will turn out to be a great benefit.

Athlete (Supporting Details) 

Basketball player

But of course a skeleton is not a real body!  It needs skin, muscles, and organs to live.  Guess what?  The outline by itself is not “real piece of writing” either.  Just like the skeleton needs more substance to become alive, your outline also needs some “meat” to live and breathe.  And this is where supporting details come into the picture.  By explaining and elaborating on the topic, they give your essay its individual character.

There are various types of supporting details, such as facts, statistics, opinions, examples, anecdotes, and testimonies.  It’s important to remember that the types of the supporting details that you would use will depend not only on the topic and the genre of your essay, but also on the audience ( and your relationship with it.  For example, if you are composing a scientific article that you would like to submit to a journal read by academically-oriented audience, it is unlikely that you will rely on personal examples and anecdotes as your supporting details.

Ice Cream With Ketchup (Paragraph Unity)

Close-up of ginger ice cream with melted milk in a bowl, horizontal

Now, can you imagine the taste of ice-cream topped with ketchup? It doesn’t sound very delicious right?  And if I were to serve dinner, I would not offer it to my guests.  Metaphorically speaking, you offer ice-cream with ketchup to your audience when you do not maintain the unity of the paragraphs in your writing.

The rule of thumb is to include only those sentences that support the topic of the paragraph, in other words, relate to the main idea of the paragraph.  When you write, keep in mind the principle of unity, and if you see a sentence that does not belong to a certain paragraph, take it out because it’s ketchup on your ice-cream!

Ketchup bottle

Multilayer Cake (Types of Sentences)

cream chocolate fruit cake sweet food dessert

Speaking about desert, here is another example.  You would probably agree with me that uniqueness of this cake is in its layers, which make it so flavorful and so desirable!  Imagine that this delicious piece of cake is a paragraph in your essay, and the layers of the cake are your sentences.  Sentences in a paragraph all have different functions.  Normally, a paragraph should contain a topic sentence—one layer in the cake.  The function of the topic sentence is to declare the main idea of the paragraph.  The rest of the sentences provide support, but their functions vary too—just like the other layers in the cake.  Some of your supporting sentences will provide argumentation, some will include ideas contrasting to the one indicated in the topic sentence, and some will simply provide an explanation of the topic sentence.

Once again, the choice of supporting details will depend on your topic, the genre, the audience, and perhaps your creativity (as long as you don’t throw in any ketchup!).  Nevertheless, they should all make one unit, just like all the layers together make a cake.  In other words, you need to be sure that the sentences in your paragraphs are connected with transitional words and phrases that show the relationship among these sentences.

Plate of Noodles (Sentence Structures)

Boiled spaghetti

Staying on the topic of sentence variety I would like to introduce the next picture metaphor: noodles.  Let’s look at this plate of noodles.  Surely they look good, and I believe they taste just fine. But how about this plate?

Pasta with tomato sauce, parmesan and vegetables

Adding veggies, spices, and sauce makes a big difference, doesn’t it?

Here comes the explanation of this metaphor.  Simple sentences are probably able to convey your message just fine, similar to how a plate of plain noodles is able to satisfy hunger.  But if you want to catch your readers’ attention, you need to do “more cooking”.

There are a whole variety of strategies that you can use to make your sentence more “flavorful”.  Here are just some of those strategies:

1. Combine simple sentences into longer utterances by using the following conjunctions:

  • For – a reason: I try not to waste any single bit of food, for it’s pretty expensive for a college student.
  • And – a similar, or an equal idea: I wanted to go to the zoo, and my brother wanted to come with me.
  • Nor – a negative equal idea: My cat refuses to eat dry food, nor will she eat fish.
  • But – an opposite idea: I have good computer skills, but I a having a hard time with this software.
  • Or – an alternative possibility: You can use your credit card, or you can write me a check.
  • Yet – an unexpected or surprising continuation: I am not a big fan of dogs, yet I like to play with your puppy.
  • So – an expected result: I don’t have much time, so you should hurry.

2. Combine simple sentences with conjunctive adverbs.  The most common conjunctive adverbs are used:

  • To add a similar idea (also, besides, furthermore, in addition)
  • To add a contrasting idea (on the other hand, in contrast)
  • To add an example (for example, for instance)
  • To add an unexpected continuation (however, nevertheless, nonetheless)
  • To add an expected result (accordingly, as a result, as a consequence, hence, therefore, thus)

3. Indicate the relationships between two simple sentences by putting them in one sentence by using adverbials.  For example, you can use the following adverbials:

  • Time: after, before, when, while, as, as soon as, since, until, once, as long as, whenever, every time that
  • Cause and effect: since, because, now that
  • Contrast: although, even though, though
  • Direct contrast: while
  • Condition: if, unless, only if, even if, whether or not, in case 

4. Use clauses in place of subjects, objects, and complements in your sentences.  Here are some examples of clauses:

  • Whether-clauses: I wonder whether I should go to this party or not.
  • If-clauses: Let me know if you still want to go to this party.
  • That-clauses: I am afraid that I won’t be able to go to this party.

5. Use the structure: Question words (when, where, how, who, whose, what, which) followed by infinitives.  For example: I wonder what I should do.

6. Use –ever (whoever, whatever, whenever, however) words.  For example: Whoever wants to come to this party is welcome.

7. Use clauses to modify adjectives in your sentences.

  • Adjective clause pronouns: The article that I just read was really good.
  • Using whose: I know the author whose article you are reading now.
  • Adjective clauses with where: The district where we live is very beautiful.
  • Adjective clauses with when: I still remember the day when I wrote my first article in English.

8. Use adjective clauses to modify pronouns in your sentences.  For example:

  • There is something I need to tell you.
  • Anybody who wants to come to this party is welcome.
  • I don’t believe anything she said.
  • She is the only one who in my opinion deserves this award.

So let’s summarize the principles of academic writing addressed above.  When you write an essay, or any other piece of academic writing, keep in mind the following: 1) Outline your ideas before you start the actual process of writing, 2) Use supporting details to explain and elaborate on the topic, 3) Maintain the unity in paragraphs, 4) Use various types of supporting details, 5) Use a good variety of sentence structures.  Academic writing doesn’t have to be hard!

About the author:

Elena is originally from Russia and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Second Language Studies in the U.S. She has taught various ESL classes in academic and community contexts. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, especially hiking and fishing.

  • It really explains all. Your article becomes more understandable with your examples and deep explanation for a student to easily understand on what is really is it. It would be helpful for them to create a certain academic writing because they already know what is it.

    • Elena Shvidko

      Thank you! I like analogies and metaphors. So hopefully others find them helpful as well!