In one of the first creative writing classes I took, we responded to the prompt “Write about the worst thing that happened this week, and the best thing that happened this week.”
We went around the room, sharing what we’d written. As I read my piece, I began to cry. That was the week we’d moved my father, who had early-onset Alzheimer’s, to a nursing home.
The instructor looked at me sympathetically and said, “No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader.”
The importance of emotion in writing
No emotion in the writer, no emotion in the reader. What’s so important about emotion?
I sometimes talk about the three Ts of nonfiction writing. To teach your readers, you must transport them so they pay attention; and if you touch your readers’ emotions, your message is more likely to stick.
Without emotional energy, your writing simply falls flat. It’s dull. It’s a slog—not only to read, but probably to write.
Emotion creates a connection between you and your readers. When readers understand your perspective, they can engage with your message, which makes them more likely to take action. (I’m not going to cite research on this point, but there’s plenty out there.)
For your book to have an impact on your reader, your writing must convey emotion.
Five ways to add emotion to your writing
One common piece of advice for introducing emotion is to tell stories, use anecdotes, and give examples. Great advice—the human brain is trained to pay attention to stories. Let’s take it a little further…
Move from abstract to concrete
When you teach, it’s easy to slip into lecturing about abstract concepts. Stories and examples help make concepts real. Adding concrete, sensory details (sight, touch, sound) creates energy and emotion. Instead of talking about how your father loved you (abstract), describe how he bought you a flouncy, red satin prom dress that he couldn’t really afford (concrete).
When your writing feels dull, check it for abstraction overload and give your reader something tangible to hold onto.
Look for highs and lows
My creative writing instructor asked us to write about the best and the worst, the high and the low. Look for stories and examples that reflect different emotional extremes. Emotions themselves aren’t “good” or “bad,” but they certainly have different charges.
To heighten the impact, put contrasting emotions together. My best thing that week? Escaping the office with a guy I had a crush on and flying down the interstate in his new convertible. What does the reader experience when grief and exhilaration sit side by side?
Look for where you have energy
Including emotion does not necessarily mean sharing personal experiences. Emotion can simply be the energy level that comes through in your writing. Your enthusiasm (or lack thereof) shows up.
Energy often manifests physically, so use that to your advantage. For example, read your writing aloud. How does it make you feel physically? Do the words generate energy? Not sure? Read it aloud to someone else; they can tell you where it has energy and where it flags.
If you can’t decide what to write, make a list of the possibilities and read them to a friend. Have that person pay attention to your facial expressions and tone of voice. If the topic excites you, it will show. (Write it.) If it deadens you, it will show. (Don’t write it.) If it makes you nervous…what then?
Look for the things you shy away from
When something makes you nervous—when you shy away from a topic or tamp down an opinion you wish you could share—include that in your writing. If it’s something you are reacting to emotionally, likely your readers will react to it as well.
Writing about sensitive topics might make you feel vulnerable, but that vulnerability reinforces the human connection with your readers. It says, “Look, I’m a real person—just like you are.” However, don’t do therapy on the page. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader, so be sure you’ve developed some distance from tender topics. I could write the opening scenario for this article only because it happened more than twenty years ago.
Pay attention to craft
This past weekend I was reminded that craft—the technical details of how you write—can evoke emotion as much as content. I took a poetry workshop called “The Energy in the Vowels.” (Yup.) The instructor described how vowel sounds—ay, ee, ah, oh, oo, and so on—can influence the energy of a poem with their high-low tones and frequency of use. Imagine the feeling of a yogi saying “ohm” in Lotus position versus a toddler crying “Whee!” down a slide.
The strategic use of vowels can increase the emotion of your writing! Who’da thunk it?
Of course, many other elements of craft can infuse your writing with emotion. Consonants: Consider what a smooth series of Ss conjures versus the rat-a-tat-tat of Ts. Sentence length: Short or long? Rushed or relaxed? Diction: What different emotions are evoked if I use the words “tepid” and “sweltering” instead of “warm” and “hot”?
What language elements reinforce the emotion that supports your message?
How much emotion is enough?
How do you know you’ve inserted the right amount of emotion in your writing? Perhaps the best way to know is to ask your readers. What do they feel? But before that, trust your gut. When you’ve written a piece with effective emotion, something thunks into place: You sense electricity. You get goosebumps. Relief washes over you.
In a nutshell, you know it when you feel it.
Does every piece of writing need heightened emotion? Of course not. But if it’s important for your message to stick, and if your writing feels lifeless, inject emotion. Follow the energy, find the charge, and you’ll find the emotion.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll find yourself on an exhilarating drive to the nursing home.
Not sure whether your book manuscript has enough emotional energy? A Manuscript Critique & Strategy Intensive can help find the right level for your audience. Get in touch (919.609.2817 or firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll talk.