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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?

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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Feb 18 '11 at 16:07

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

Suburb... superb... well, that's irony for you. – Corey Dec 8 '10 at 19:47
This should go on writers.stackexchange.com. – JSBձոգչ Dec 8 '10 at 21:12

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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+1 Highly technical and dead on IMO – Joze Nov 3 '11 at 10:46

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."
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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
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
@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
  • 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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+1 for "be weird". :) – Martha Dec 8 '10 at 21:05
I like alliteration and assonance among other things. Archaic sentence structure and obsolete words are also wonderful... :) – kitukwfyer Dec 8 '10 at 21:28

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.

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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
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 Ipsum Sep 19 '11 at 16:01

Some good advices already here, so let me summarize them to give you an easy start writing emotional:


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.

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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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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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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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