Often, all that is required for writing to make an excellent impression is for it to be efficient and accurate. However, there may also be situations where you want your writing to stand out.
If you want to write especially descriptively, or persuasively, you can employ more nuanced language, such as idiomatic language, superlative language, techniques like similes and metaphors, and unusual words and phrases. The challenge is not merely learning these new techniques, but using them effectively.
Remember, your writing is often most effective when it is selective rather than excessive. It should be understated rather than overstated. Consider the use of hyperbole (extreme, often unrealistic language):
- I’m so tired I could sleep for a year.
- I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
- This product will change your life!
Hyperbole can be entertaining and engaging, but it is only appropriate in very particular circumstances. As a starting point, such extreme examples may be considered informal, and the nature of them being entertaining means they would be inappropriate for more serious subjects. Equally important, such examples needs to be very imaginative to be convincing, as creative language like this can often sound (ironically) very clichéd.
A cliché can refer to any word or phrase that has become overused. Clichés can sound effective (they become clichés because they are popular, after all), but they are unimaginative. Because they are common, clichés are seldom memorable or convincing. When your first instinct is to use clichéd language, ask how you might make it more interesting:
- He looked as happy as the cat that got the cream. (cliché)
- He looked as happy as the cat that discovered tin openers. (a twist on the theme)
This can be applied generally, to all the creative writing techniques you may be tempted to use. To be creative, you must search for words, phrases, and ideas that are not commonly used. But only do this only when you want to draw particular attention to something.
To return to the example of colours, describing something with a very specific and accurate colour only works if the rest of your writing is clear and simple. If you use lots of advanced language, that exceptional colour would become another in a chain of distracting terms.
When attempting to add more interesting language to your writing, also be aware of how it will be read. Context can create restrictions. Unusual language in formal writing may seem confusing or less reliable. Describing a product in unrealistic, but entertaining, terms may be useful in some circumstances and damaging in another. Consider the following example:
- Every bottle of beer contains a thousand bubbles of happiness.
This creative phrase could help the product sound fun, and not be taken too seriously. It might be appropriate for a light-hearted party-going audience, but inappropriate for someone who prefers respectable, complex drinks. For another example, concluding a business report with enthusiastic language such as “The results were amazing, and should be acted on in a flash.” targets the wrong audience.
Reports are not necessarily read for entertainment, and such language might be deemed untrustworthy or unprofessional. In academic and business writing, this is crucially important. For the same reason that passive, objective statements are useful, it is best to avoid anything too creative, in order to be taken seriously.
What if you are specifically writing creative prose? Even here – for example, in writing fiction – you must be careful to set the right tone. When using a colourful narrator, and writing in the first person, you can include creative language as fits the character, but otherwise the purpose of your writing is still to make your ideas clear and easy to read.
Anything that draws attention to the writing itself doesn’t work well. People do not read fiction, after all, to see what creative language you can use; they read it for a good story.
Creative writing can work in specific circumstances, such as when including surprising language in humour or gruesome details in horror, but mostly you should choose the language that best moves the narrative forwards. Consider the following examples, if used in a thriller:
- He sprinted down the alley, scattering bins with his free hand to trip up his pursuer.
- He sprinted down the alley, scattering bins with the clatter of a collapsing scaffold, hoping to trip up his pursuer.
Creative as the second example is, it is too cumbersome for a fast chase, and will create a different (and confusing) image in the mind of a reader.
Again, this is a principle to apply generally. Whichever creative techniques you employ, they all share a similar impact, creating a break from the expected, simple writing. Always think about who will read your text and how they will experience it. If you want to make your writing bolder, consider not just how effectively a technique captures your idea, but how it will impact the flow, tone, and credibility of your text.
Also remember that being bold with your writing does not always mean making it complicated, or colourful, or unique. Writing can stand out by being incredibly easy to follow, too.
Becoming More Engaging
Clear writing with rare, strategic variations may keep a reader engaged on its own. If you specifically want to draw certain emotions from a reader, however, there are a few additional techniques that might help. The theory of writing in the second person is covered in 10.2 Second Person. Also, consider the difference it makes to use active sentences. Passive and Active Writing. Both of these techniques can make writing more engaging:
Every new parent will love this pram. → You will love this pram.
The cinema is being closed down. → The Council are closing down the cinema.
Both of these examples work on the same principle: they move from the general to the specific. By clearly defining the actor, a clearer picture is created, drawing the reader in. Specific images are very important to take a reader from reading for information to actively picturing a situation.
This is relevant in all fields of writing. Sentences with a more direct agency can make even detached writing more engaging. In the following example, the second sentence is actually longer, but it is clearer because it is more active:
Proof theory is where proofs are represented as formal mathematical objects. → Proof theory is a branch of logic that represents proofs as formal mathematical objects.
Another way to engage the reader is to ask questions. This is commonly done in advertising and headlines:
Most carpet cleaners can’t remove stubborn stains. → Can your carpet cleaner remove stubborn stains?
A new study has proposed the existence of mice on the moon. → Are mice really living on the moon?
Questions appeal to readers’ curiosity and draw them personally into the text.
Often the brain has a need to read on to find the answer. The same effect can be produced by leaving out information or hinting at something still to come. This is often employed at the end of sections of a creative text, such as chapter endings, with what is commonly called a cliff-hanger, finishing with an unresolved situation:
Harold held on tight, his legs hanging over the edge of the cliff, the drop impossibly far down. If he reached across to the tree roots, he might lose his grip. But there was no other option, and he was getting weaker by the moment. He went for it.
Ending a scene here would create a literal cliff-hanger, encouraging the reader to keep going to find out what happens next.
Inspiring curiosity has become particularly common in online headlines and email subjects, designed to make people click them. These often open questions or make bold statements that demand more information:
- Can you afford not to follow these tips?
- You’ll never guess which celebrity survives only on burgers!
These techniques must be used sparingly to be effective. Titles like these, in fact, are disparagingly referred to as clickbait and may encourage resentment as readers feel manipulated. Employing such techniques takes delicate care, and again works best when the rest of your text is respectable and clear.
To be safe, the best way to engage a reader will always be to produce writing that is easy to read and understand: writing that focuses on the important details, without providing redundant or distracting language.
Only slight variations are needed to make things stand out. The final and perhaps most important tip in writing to engage, therefore, is simply don’t try too hard. It shows.