How tiny is tiny? How huge is huge?
How small is small? One-third the size of a ladybug? The size of a sprinkle on an ice cream cone?
Analogy, metaphor, simile and other comparisons can help your readers literally “see” the size and scale you’re communicating.
Help readers see
A J-school friend of mine, The Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker, used that approach in his Pulitzer Prize-winning explanatory series on aneurysms:
“A radiologist scrutinizing film for gall stones can’t help noticing if an aorta, typically the diameter of a garden hose, measures as large as a soda can.”
OK, now I get it.
Ask, “What’s it like?”
In A Perfect Red, Amy Butler Greenfield describes her topic, cochineal, thus:
“A close cousin to oak-kermes, St. John’s blood, and Armenian red, cochineal belongs, as they do, to the scale family. Infamous among gardeners for their voracious appetites, scales have been known to devastate greenhouses and gardens in a matter of days. Although the destruction they cause is enormous, most scale insects are quite small, and cochineal-genus Dactylopius is no exception. A wild cochineal insect is one-third the size of a ladybug and ranges in color from silver-gray to red-black. Six of them could fit quite comfortable along the length of a paperclip, provided they didn’t fall through the middle first.”
When you use adjectives like “voracious” and “quite small,” make sure your reader can see what that looks like. How voracious is “voracious”? “Quite small” says one thing; “one-third the size of a ladybug” says something entirely different.
Smallpox in my pocket
In Demon in the Freezer, Richard Preston’s amazing book about smallpox, the author uses comparison to help readers see size and scale, too:
“The pustules become hard, bloated sacs the size of peas, encasing the body with pus, and the skin resembles a cobblestone street.”
“Today, smallpox and its protocols could be anywhere in the world. A master seed strain of smallpox could be carried in a person’s pocket. The seed itself could be a freeze-dried lump of virus the size of a jimmy on an ice-cream cone.”
How small is small? The size of jimmy on an ice-cream cone.
Need to convey size and scale? Show your reader how small or large it is through comparison.
Source: Kevin Helliker and Thomas M. Burton, “The Battle of the Bulge: Aneurysm Tests Could Save A Lot of Lives, if Performed,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 2003