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Over the years, my English professors seem to have agreed on one thing: that I'm a superb technical writer, but terrible at eliciting emotional response in something like a story or an argumentative essay. The last paper I've received back had a comment saying that it was written more like an encyclopedia article than an essay.

How can I make my writing have more emotion? How can I "inject" personality into it?

  • Suburb... superb... well, that's irony for you. – Corey Dec 8 '10 at 19:47
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13 Answers 13

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Alright, so to infuse personality into a paper, there are lots of things you can try.

This might seem silly, but it works. Read something unusual. If you're having problems because your prose is too dry, read something so soapy you could scrub the dishes with it. Do you normally read scientific articles? Read a graphic novel. Do you normally read classics? Read a thriller.

You can also try to read things by authors that have high technical skill, but are also known for something else. Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and J.R.R. Tolkien come to mind, along with many others.

Also, vary your sentence length significantly within each paper. It helps. Fragments might be grammatically inadvisable, but for slamming home a point, they can be invaluable. If you use it too much, it just becomes a cheap trick, but at the proper place, at the proper moment, it's more of a flourish. Use sentence length to compliment your intention. Do you want it to flow smoothly, and relax the reader? Or do you want it to jolt them, and jerk them, and keep them alert? The same goes for word length. Using multisyllabic words is no bad thing, but sometimes the smaller words are better. A little asceticism can go a long way. Using words with stop consonants can also have the same effect, but it's less constant. Using lots of b's and p's doesn't really work, but k's, g's, and t's can make a sentence "harder," if you will. D's are on the borderline.

In the previous paragraph, I wrote the sentence "It helps." towards the beginning. Replace it with "It will aid you immensely in manipulating the reader's emotions" or something and see if you think it changes the tone. Or compare "You're being stupid." to "Idiot!" Think of all the synonyms for "idiot" you know of, think of how/why you'd use them, and then try to analyze the differences between them. Unless you don't feel emotion when you insult people, of course. :)

As another example, allow me to shamelessly steal the example from Claudiu's answer:

"I think the king's policies were ridiculous. How could he possibly think of continuing to raise taxes when his peasants were starving?"

Instead of trying to make it sound smarter, try to make it sound harsher. You are, after all, making a rather pejorative judgement:

"The king's policies were idiotic. In his desire for power he continued to increase taxes, without regard or respect for his people's inability to feed themselves, let alone further fill his coffers."

I replaced "ridiculous" with "idiotic" because it has a faster, staccato rhythm, partially due to the facts that it has fewer consonants overall and what few it has are all stops.

Another trick I used there was stating the opinion as a fact. I don't think the policies were ridiculous, they were quite inarguably idiotic!

The other answers have some excellent advice. I hope this helps as well. This is already too long, but if I think of anything else incredibly useful, I'll add it.

EDIT: I should have said this first. In your writing there are bound to be lots and lots and lots of little things that make your writing yours. Look for those things. When you find them, build on them before you try to take any suggestions you find here. No matter how good someone else's advice may be, it's still someone else's, and adopting it can make your writing just seem artificial. Try to develop the personality you already have, not the one your professors think you should have. Even if it makes your writing less than "perfect," if it's honestly written, they'll appreciate it. And if they don't, their opinions aren't worth taking seriously outside of how it affects your grade.

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  • Be sensual. Describe how thinks feel, look, smell. In a story, put the reader in a setting and make them feel like they're really there. Include small, realistic details to further the illusion.

  • Be passionate. Use metaphors, hyperbole and similes to add color to your writing. If you're making an argument, go a little overboard in your word choice. Your opponent's position isn't just suboptimal or misguided; it's delusional and destructive. (Often, people overdo this, but you might benefit from doing it a little more.)

  • Be weird. Use an unnecessarily ornate word. Use an idiom or regional slang. Use an unusual sentence structure. Use some alliteration. Do something to let your reader know that they're reading something written by Corey, not someone else. I can tell when I'm reading something by Hemingway or Twain, because they each have a distinct voice that comes across in their writing. Find your voice.

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    I like alliteration and assonance among other things. Archaic sentence structure and obsolete words are also wonderful... :) – kitukwfyer Dec 8 '10 at 21:28
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It's a common theme in writing today to make it dull and boring, as long sentences are praised and complicated, sesquipedalian words are placed on a lofty pedestal. Detaching all sense of self or identity from the writing is presupposed to lead to the development of good writing, the falsity of which is clearly attested to by this very sentence, which anyone reading would undoubtedly get bored of.

That being said, I think the most important thing is to not filter your thoughts. Just write them down as they come. Imagine that you'll be the only one reading it. Later you can adjust for political correctness / thoroughness. Example:

  • Thought: "I think the king's policies were ridiculous. How could he possibly think of continuing to raise taxes when his peasants were starving?"
  • Censor: Hmm, now how to phrase this?
  • Filtered thought: "In my opinion, the king's policies were not optimal. It is difficult to understand why he continued to raise taxes when the people did not have enough money for food."
  • Censor: Alright, well that has to be spruced up a bit to sound better / more intellectual.
  • Final result: "In my opinion, the king's policies were not optimal for the benefit of his people. The continual raising of the tax rate at a time when the population was struggling to provide the bare necessities of life caused them great difficulties.

Now you've taken an outspoken statement that clearly shows your views, doubled its length, and made it much less exciting to read. I'm not saying the original thought was ideal, but it was closer to the desired end result. In that way you'll put yourself more into your writing.

Besides that, general tips:

  • Use germanic words as opposed to Latin ones. Makes it sound better / more "emotional" in English.
  • Don't use passive constructions.
  • Really simple sentences are boring ("The cow went moo. It was happy.") but overly complicated ones are boring and clunky. Find a nice middle ground.
  • I strongly recommend reading the essay Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell. It covers these points and more.
  • Show, don't tell. You don't say "It was greatly satisfying to complete the project." You say "I finished the last edits, submitted the project, then just laid back in my chair with a sense of ease and relaxation."
  • Seriously? Germanic words instead of Latin ones? I bet most people can't even tell the difference. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 8 '10 at 20:23
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    They sure can, intuitively. Give up the throne, or relinquish it? I am full of anger, or I am filled with ire? An array of characters, or a sequence of characters? I'm well aware of the fact, or I'm cognizant of the fact? A harbinger of doom, or an indicator of doom? A feeling or a sentiment? which ones sound more gut-wrenching to you? (Also: gut-wrenching, or visceral? =P). – Claudiu Dec 8 '10 at 20:49
  • Your "Relief washed over me" example sounds like something from a trashy romance novel. :/ – Martha Dec 8 '10 at 21:04
  • @Martha: heh true, i forgot to mention to avoid cliches.. re-reading it i don't like it at all. can you suggest a better one? – Claudiu Dec 8 '10 at 21:16
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    @Corey: ah just my point. the problem isn't so much that you stop at 3, it's that you went past 1 in the first place! so all you have to do is less - not to say that's easy. be honest with yourself; write what you really think. – Claudiu Dec 8 '10 at 23:07
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Read. Read some more. Read good writing. Read bad writing, but not so much that it begins to seem like good writing. Read technical writing, novels, murder mysteries, blogs, the back of the cereal box. Read Joel on Software. Read Lois McMaster Bujold. Read Tolkien, but only after watching the movies.

Once you've gotten enough reading under your belt, your personality will automatically inject itself into your writing, without you needing to think about it.

  • I agree with this whole-heartedly. Especially the Tolkien, although I don't think it's absolutely necessary to see the movies first, just recommended. – kitukwfyer Dec 8 '10 at 22:13
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    If I hadn't watched the LOTR films, I would have had very little clue what was going on in the books. Having watched the movies, the books sprang to life, and I now wind up re-reading almost every year. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 19 '11 at 16:01
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Some good advices already here, so let me summarize them to give you an easy start writing emotional:

DO NOT THINK!

Yeah, you have read correctly. If you are a good technical writer and suck at emotions, then you probably think too much. You know that one brain hemisphere controls emotions, the other controls logical thinking. You use the wrong one. (Ok, that is scientifically not correct, but it is good enough to make my point.)

So trust your gut feeling. Just write, don't think and you will watch how emotions are just flooding into your fingertips.

  • Wow, John, I was going to ask how to write more emotionally and now I don't need to. I'm blown away, I mean that, because you nailed it. Thank you! (Seven years later, :-) ) – DPT Mar 13 '18 at 17:00
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Simple. What makes writing emotional is when the author draws on their own emotional experiences. Trying to simulate emotion by reading other authors will not come off as genuine as using first hand experience. The depth at which one can feel emotions is the depth at which they can potentially communicate them.

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Simply for me, I write my most emotionally charged pieces when I'm emotional. If I'm writing something romantic or erotic, i need to be in a sensual mood. If I'm writing something sci-fi, I need to be in a techy mood. You get the idea I'm sure.

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Writing isn't emotional; stories are emotional. Paint isn't emotional; pictures are emotional. Notes aren't emotional; music is emotional.

While some words are certainly more emotionally changed than others, even the trigger power of certain words depends on their context in a story. Emotion in a story comes, essentially, from the gain or loss of things loved or hoped for, and from the trials encountered and courage displayed in the pursuit or defence of that which is loved or hoped for.

To make your writing emotional, you must tell a story and the substance of that story must be the gain or loss of things hoped for or things loved. There are obviously good and bad ways to tell this story, but they are secondary. The best telling my heighten the emotion; the worst telling may blunt it, but the core emotion will still come through from the story itself.

What good telling can do for a story is mostly to heighten the intensity of the hope, and the attachment of the reader to the person whose hope is portrayed. The more keenly we perceive the character (like them or not) the more engaged we are with their hope and the more keenly we feel their triumph or loss.

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To elicit emotions, you have to have emotions. That is actually a problem for some people; they (by nature or upbringing or both) remain analytical or cynical about most things. They don't get very emotional about topics that are not extreme in nature, or to them seem to be par for the course (like political corruption, getting overcharged for car repairs, finding out their CEO has just been arrested for having a secret stash of child porn.)

So if you do have an emotions about what you are writing about, you need to analyze them. What makes you happy or sad or angry or disgusted by the story, or what somebody did, or what somebody failed to do?

Pick your emotion and the instance and in your writing, you want to highlight the emotional ramifications so you can elicit the same emotion in people like yourself. (I don't advise trying to know your audience except in the most general terms. Meaning there is a way to appeal to children, or young adults, or young adult women, or other relatively large demographics, but when it comes to emotion you don't know them that well. Presume your emotional reaction is within the typical boundaries and write to appeal to yourself.)

The goal is that if you put your writing aside, and read it tomorrow, you will retrigger the same emotions in yourself. If you don't, you aren't going to trigger them in anybody else. Find the adjectives and poetry such that, if you are appalled, the audience will be too. You still need to describe the facts, but add enough adjectives and description so you don't just guide the reader through what happened, but what you felt while it was happening. (Or if you weren't there, how you felt imagining it happening.)

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I think there are too many aspects to good emotive writing to list (after all, the way to communicate ideas in a language is covered pretty nicely by its lexicon and grammar; emotion by everything else on top of that), but here are the ones that I think are most important:

1 - A single underlying emotive concept:

This is probably obvious, for the most part, and there are also probably some noteworthy exceptions, but I think as a general rule a piece of emotive writing should have some kind of specific underlying emotional thrust to it (i.e. more specific than simply "I want the reader to feel [emotion]").

For example, if the underlying emotive concept of a passage is that a character misses somebody who has died, make sure that every sentence in it serves that specific concept in some way.

I think this is usually best done somewhat indirectly. Since emotional states are usually associated with obsessive thought processes (of some form or other), capturing this in how you write can be an effective way to communicate emotion. Perhaps (to use the aforementioned example) you could list specific things about the person that the character misses, things they'll never be able to do with that person, etc..

If you help us to experience what thoughts the character is experiencing, we will be infected with their emotions, too.

You don't even need to mention emotions at all for this to work (and I think it's often better if you don't). Capture the thought patterns effectively enough and you shouldn't need to consciously think about evoking emotion. It should just come.

2 - Rhythm:

The content (i.e. the actual ideas you're communicating) can be brilliant, but the emotion might still fall flat if the rhythm of the writing undoes it.

How long the sentences are, how complex they are, how repetative the rhythm is, all of these things will influence how the reader processes their contents. It will change which words the emphasis falls on, it will change the amount of significance the reader places on things (e.g. something nested in a larger sentence will usually feel less significant than something given a sentence of its own), and it will help to create (or disrupt) the flow that the reader follows as they read.

As for how to find the right rhythm, this will depend on the specific writing, your writing style, the emotion you're trying to put across, etc., but if a piece isn't working and you don't think the ideas are the problem, maybe try messing around with the rhythm to see if this can increase its impact.

3 - Setup:

This is probably fairly self explanatory, so I'll keep it brief. Pretty much any piece of emotive writing (at least, in the context of fiction) is reliant on what comes before it. The above example of the character missing someone else would be far more powerful at the end (or in the middle) of a story, where the relationship between the two characters is already well established, than it would be at the start. Equally, if the character is set up as being very pragmatic and unsentimental, the mere fact that they're stopping to think about their missing friend at all might be a testament to the strength of their affection and emotion. Without this setup, that impact would be lost completely.

4 - Get involved:

If you're trying to evoke an emotion, try to feel it. Find a way (in your head, on paper, via interpretive dance - it doesn't matter) to sympathise with the character. Make yourself feel what they feel, and try to capture that. It will always come across more effectively than if you try to reason your way into how they're feeling. If you do that, you're essentially trying to reason the reader into feeling it. This rarely works.

I don't mean, of course, that to write about a grieving character you have to be currently experiencing grief, only that you should experience some kind of sympathy for them, and channel this into your writing.

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Beside the content and the style you used to have an emotional writing, the reader should relate to what you wrote:

  • You are writing about emotional states that happens to the reader
  • You are writing about a difficult event that the reader has went through
  • The reader identifies himself with a certain personality of your story.

That's why it's important to know deeply the psychology of your intended audience.

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Since, like me, you have a technical mind I suggest you spend some time putting your text through a headline analysis tool to check it for emotional impact. After a while you begin to get a feel for what makes the biggest impact.

Try the one at https://coschedule.com/headline-analyzer

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You're a technical writer so I'll speak to you in your language. You know what a sine wave looks like, right? Think of good drama as maximizing the distance between the high and low peaks of the wave. The audience's emotional ride are the wave form. They ride between emotional high's and lows; happiness vs tragedy, control vs chaos, beauty vs fuggly.

For example, take the story of Moby Goldfish. An eight year old boy's challenge is to responsibly feed his fish named Moby. Moby swims in circles all his life. That's it. No drama. No highs and lows. Compare that to Moby Dick, a titanic struggle between life and death, human vs prey, man vs monster.

We are just beginning to quantify the mathematics of literature. Yes, it really is all about math at some level. We'll soon have machine learning models that can aid writers, rate scripts and write odd dramas.

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    I know dozens of tech writers. I am quite sure that most of them have no idea what a sine wave looks like. – user16226 Sep 15 '17 at 16:30

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