Issue 38 April, 2016
Three ways to spark interest with expressive writing
We’re a society of skimmers and snackers. So if you’re producing articles, newsletters, blog posts, web copy and other content, you want to get to the point, and fast.
You can help readers quickly grasp what you mean using what I call expressive writing – what your English teacher probably called figurative writing. It’s a way of following the advice, “Don’t tell them, show them.”
Anywhere you want to explain something, drive home a point or spark emotion is a good place to try expressive language. Here are three ways to do so:
1. Use analogies, like similes and metaphors
Analogies create images in our brains by comparing one thing to another.
Similes use “like” or “as”:
“When the winds are blowing from the west from 15 to 20 mph, [hang glider] Joey Villaflor describes it like a Batman signal scraping the sky.”
- Tim Hussin in the San Francisco Chronicle
A metaphor suggests a comparison without using “like”:
“The hawk is on my fist. Thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket...“
- Helen Macdonald, in H is for Hawk
2. Use colourful, specific language
Journalist Roy Peter Clark encourages building a good vocabulary and using specific words; as he says in Help! for Writers, “Get the name of the dog.” (A story about a dog is more vivid when you know the dog is a grizzled 14-year-old black Lab called Jake.) See how specific details make this writing sharp:
“Wineglasses, antique vases, Humpty Dumpty, hip bones, hearts: what breaks quickly generally mends slowly, if at all.”
- Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker (in a piece that just won a Pulitzer Prize)
3. Make numbers meaningful
Any time you have a large, small or significant number, relate it to something else to give context. Here’s an example about a tiny creature called a tardigrade:
"[It's] half a millimeter long (small enough to fit on the period at the end of this sentence) and roly-poly-shaped, with eight stubby legs and a squashed face.”
- Sarah Kaplan in The Washington Post
And another example found by sales specialist Anne Miller, explaining why a seemingly excellent performance ratio of 99.9 percent isn’t good enough:
“[A] one-tenth of one percent error rate in, say, health-care services means that this week 500 surgeries would be botched and a dozen babies would be given to the wrong parents.”
It’s true that you may have a harder time using expressive language in corporate writing than in feature writing. Don’t let that stop you from trying, especially if you need to explain a complex topic or give context to numbers.
What great examples of expressive writing have you seen? Hit "reply" and tell me about it! And let me know if you need help crafting expressive writing for your own content.
Photo: Rob Jeanveau of IABC/Golden Horseshoe.