Make size and scale visual

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?

Smaller than a ladybug? Help readers ‘see’ size and scale through metaphor and simile. Image by Florence Landry

Analogy, metaphor, simile and other comparisons can help your readers “see” the size and scale you’re communicating.

Here’s how:

  1. 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 see it.

  1. 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.

  1. Ask, “How big is big?”

In the movie “Armageddon,” the president’s staff is briefing the leader of the free world about the giant asteroid that’s hurling toward earth.

Just how big is it? the president asks.

260,000 square miles and change, the team answers.

Finally, Billy Bob Thornton’s character steps in: “It’s the size of Texas, Mr. President,” he says.

Which means more: “261,797 square miles”? Or “the size of Texas”?

Turn numbers into things for easier understanding.

  1. Add a zero.

What’s the difference between 10 and 10 billion?

Modern designers Charles and Ray Eames answered that question by zooming from a picnicker in a Chicago park out to the galaxies above him and back into the microscopic world inside his hand.

It’s an object lesson in communicating scale through analogy. And you can see it firsthand in Powers of Ten the flipbook, the movie or the book.

  1. Ask, “How small is small?”

When the late, great Kansas City Star columnist C.W. Gusewelle wanted to help readers understand the fragility of monarch butterflies as they migrate south for the winter, he wrote:

Consulting the literature, I find that the average weight of an adult monarch may be expressed as 0.0176 of an ounce, about the same as a good-sized snowflake.

I don’t know whether I appreciate the analogy more or the four decimal points of precision!

Both make the point: It’s not enough just to communicate the numbers. You also need to help readers see them.

  1. Put it in their 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 your number is through comparison.

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