Emotion in Motion in Writing

At an early age, writers are instructed to show, not tell.  Exercises help writers improve their ability to transport readers to any place imaginable, and depict all five senses through words.  From the moment I began work on my Capstone Project, which focuses on a trip I took to Japan 8 months ago, I knew that showing my writer the places I visited through writing would be key to completing a well-rounded piece.  I tried, and have succeeded, in painting vivid images through words.  Yet one area of my project that has been a serious challenge has been the portrayal of my emotions during my trip through writing.

One of the difficulties in writing about emotion stems from experience: different people experience emotions different ways.  Identifying the proper metaphors or descriptions to portray emotions can be challenging.  One helpful tip I received was to use physical descriptions as a conduit for emotions.  For instance, describing beads of sweat forming above an eyebrow is a nice and easy way to portray nervousness or fear.

Another difficulty is striking the balance between over-encumbering a reader with emotional descriptions, and leaving too much up to the reader’s imagination.  We always strive to force our readers to do some work as they process our writing and imagine our descriptions.  Yet leaving readers with too much work to do, or creating descriptions that are not tight enough, can damage the lens and message that a piece is attempting to deliver.

I’m curious to hear if other writers on the Minor in Writing blog have struggled with depicting emotion in their writing. What methods or tips can you share for crafting emotional and thought-process descriptions that are both accessible and deep enough for readers?

David Hermanoff

I am a Sophomore from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In addition to the Minor in Writing, I am working towards graduating from the Honors History program. After college I want to earn a JD/MBA. My favorite hobbies are skiing and basketball.

3 thoughts to “Emotion in Motion in Writing”

  1. Great post! I think another reason why illustrating emotion in writing is difficult stems from the fact that almost all students are forced to write a ton of formal academic writing throughout school. Throughout middle school and high school, I was basically molded into an academic essay writing robot. While imagery is often necessary in academic writing, expressing extremely hyperbolic emotion in an informal way is usually pretty inappropriate. So when people finally break out into more informal or personal genres of writing, I think it’s difficult to think creatively about descriptions.

  2. David,

    I agree that this is a major concern for the capstone project – how do we transport the reader and place them in our shoes, while also leaving them some room for imagination and interpretation? This is especially troublesome where the projects center on personal experiences.

    I think you do a great job of describing your experiences, particularly in your chapter about the amusement park. Your descriptions in that part of the project truly allow the reader to see what you saw, and experience that place as you experienced it. Moreover, you do, in fact, provide vivid physical descriptions that evoke emotion through imagery. Try to bring these positive aspects of your description to the other chapters of the project.

    In terms of balance, I, personally, fall on the side of more, rather than less. I find that my writing is enhanced when I show the reader more than I leave to his or her imagination. This is especially true in personal, experiential writing, since only you actually had that experience, and the goal is to show the reader what you saw and have them experience it in the same way. However, I would be careful with detail selection – only provide the details and descriptions that are really significant and meaningful for the reader to understand the piece; providing details for details’ sake will only serve to clutter your writing and interrupt the flow.

  3. David,

    I’m glad you wrote about this — I’ve struggled with the same thing.

    For me, because I’ve set my project in a formal discipline, the issue was figuring out how to make it personal without sounding unprofessional. I mediated the dilemma through introducing a personal angle in my project introduction. Although separate from the actual thing itself, because it is found proximate to the product I felt that this was a suitable alternative, and can therefore decide for myself how much is too much or too little. Yet, I still don’t really know how to properly strike that balance. As the semester approaches its end, I’ve begun revisiting my draft of the introduction, feeling out how things have changed and how it works with my project differently now from the time that I wrote it. I’m thinking about letting one of my roommates read it because I find it’s really hard to judge the effect of personal writing (and whether it matches up with what you intended) yourself since it is, after all, about you.


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