A Writing Exercise
I have often had people tell me that there is nothing in common between writing fiction and writing non-fiction. Most often, the people who make such announcements don’t really know about writing at all; they just think they do.
In reality, all writing, to be successful, must engage the reader’s attention. An essay should be just as entertaining as a short story. A biography should hold the reader’s attention in the same way as a novel.
In an essay, the writer is presenting a point of view, a main idea that the writer wishes to get the reader to agree with. The writer has several ways of doing this. The most obvious is for the writer to present a whole lot of facts and statistics. But the statistics alone usually aren’t enough to make a convincing argument. The writer needs emotional appeals as well.
So, how should a writer make the emotional appeals effective?
The big rule that English teachers have been proclaiming for decades is “Show, don’t tell.” That’s good advice, as far as it goes. You don’t want to tell your readers that they ought to feel angry; instead, you want to show a situation in a way that they will get angry about it.
The challenge I give my students is this: Think about some occasion when you had a strong emotional experience. Now write about it. Tell everything that happened, and tell about all of your senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. But do NOT name any emotion. Don’t mention anything about what you were thinking. Keep it to just the sensory information. You can include your body’s physical responses (your heart was beating rapidly, or your palms were sweating, for example), but you must NOT mention anything you thought or any emotions.
Next, exchange papers with another student, who will read what you wrote and try to define what emotions you were feeling. If you’ve done a good job, your reader will understand even if he or she has never experienced what you have.
This sort of skill is widely promoted as being in the realm of creative writing. But it’s also good in non-fiction. A good essay engages the reader’s emotions in order to get its message across. An exercise like this helps the writer to learn how to engage those emotions.