As writers, our primary charge is to elucidate whatever the topic demands, whether story, concept, process or application. However, clarity is not our only concern; we must also make the content compelling enough to retain and grow readership. In an effort to engage the reader, all writers (at some point or another) succumb to a fishing technique they first learned in childhood: melodramatic expression.
When I think about melodrama, I think about my angelic despot of a nephew who, not yet two, is deep into his emotional con. He uses a diverse cache of screams to communicate his immediate desires: more smoothie, no dog, find da-da. In due diligence, I investigate every scream to ensure it’s not injury related or disaster bound. In truth, it isn't difficult to discern between a real cry and a fake cry, because as a child, I did the same thing: amplified emotion to convey my seriousness, my fury, my sugar-assuaged dissent.
It’s not just the knowledge of the con that tips me off, though; it’s that his finger isn’t smashed. There’s no bruise or scrape, no broken toy. In other words, the language doesn’t match the plot, and the exaggerated cry contributes to a feeling of inauthenticity. Professional writers should remember that overly emotional, descriptive writing can have the same effect. Keep reading for tips on how to convey passion without melodrama.
What Is Passionate Writing?
Passionate writing isn’t romantic; it isn’t martyrdom or a battlecry. Passionate writing is text that engages the reader through a communion built on authenticity. This type of writing can’t be defined by hard-and-fast rules, but you know it when you read it. You believe the writer, feel compelled to follow. Above all, passionate writing can’t be forged. It is the revelatory conclusion only arrived at through research, reflection and clarity.
Can someone learn how to write passionately? Absolutely — but not as a pastime. Passionate writing demands a commitment to craft and critical analysis that prohibit even the most naturally talented writers from using it frivolously.
Looking for a guide on passionate writing? Few writers have chronicled the demands of passionate writing as effectively as contemporary poet and prose writer Mary Oliver. In her essay collection Upstream, Oliver gives writers of all genres and practices guidance on integrating the creative self, channeling existential purpose and embracing whole-hearted concentration.
Skip the Purple Prose
In the field of literary criticism, purple prose is an overly ornate writing style that sacrifices plot for extravagant description. Put simply, it’s overkill: too many adjectives, adverbs and metaphors, too many rich descriptions. When used intentionally, a descriptive line of prose can lead readers to a specific experience or understanding; when used haphazardly, it loses readers in the weeds.
Encountering purple prose can cause the reader to question the writer’s motives. In worst-case scenarios, writers may use purple prose in an attempt to obscure a lack of understanding or to compensate for a weak plot point. More often than not, purple prose doesn’t distract the reader from a particular passage, but alerts them to its ostensible importance. When the reader gets bad directions, it damages their trust in the writer.
Purple Prose vs. Lyrical Prose
You don’t have to stop writing pretty pose when you stop writing purple prose; if the two are inextricable, you have some reflection to do. Lyrical prose is still a potent and appropriate tool that professional writers of all kinds need to be able to use effectively. On the surface level, purple prose and lyrical prose seem to have a lot in common, but they are separated by a few key differences:
- Saturation. True lyric is a mixture of many serviceable lines accented by a few lines of outstanding description. Purple prose passages are saturated with indiscriminate description throughout.
- Brevity. Lyrical prose is economical, choosing “arctic” over “a light grey-blue color that seemed cold and wintery.” Purple prose will elongate meaning over many words instead of embracing brevity.
- Insight. The aim of lyrical prose is, like the aim of good writing, to elucidate and engage. An expertly-placed line of lyrical prose can give insight to a character’s psychological state, beliefs, assumptions, etc. Purple prose does not enhance the reader’s understanding or reveal anything hidden; it produces irrelevant and excess detail.
Don’t abandon passionate prose — abandon the idea that you can fake it through flowery descriptions. A kernel of insight is much more valuable to the reader than a wealth of superfluous description.
Write What You Know
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a short story, a marketing email or blog post — if you don’t have intimate knowledge of the subject, your ardor will be perceived as disingenuous, an attempt to sell something to the reader. To write genuinely, a writer must believe when they say they believe, be ready to lead when they ask the reader to follow.
For professional writers whose work isn’t always creative in nature, writing from a place of authority and expertise can be a challenge. To mitigate the risk of disingenuity, the working writer should embrace the following strategies:
- Be discriminating about the work you take on. This strategy assumes the writer is privileged enough to turn away work that doesn’t suit them. If you are one of those privileged working writers, don’t squander the opportunity to choose work that aligns with your values and interests.
- Write the topic from your vantage point. One of the biggest benefits to approaching topics from an angle that actually interests you is that you will produce more unique pieces than if you took the standard perspective. That isn’t to say that a writer should ignore the requirements of a particular assignment, but rather that they should write from the lens that allows for authentic enthusiasm.
- Research the topic as much as you can. Sometimes working writers have to write about a topic in which they truly have no interest. In these cases, authority will be an adequate stand-in for passion. The piece may not be revelatory, but then again, the topic may not require it. Knowledge will still provide the necessary confidence to engage a reader who does have interest in the topic.
Remember: You’re Passionate, Not Possessed
Don’t expect the perfect words to pour, unfiltered, from your mind to the screen. Though this rash creative process might spit out the occasional genius piece, it’s not reliable enough to produce consistently high-quality work. If it was, professional writing would never be learned; it would be left to the prophetically gifted.
To reliably create passionate work is a difficult task, which is why it’s so valuable. Writers are asked to produce work that taps into an understanding that non-writers would find difficult to communicate persuasively. Passionate content requires a commitment to research, reflection and clarity — worthy pursuits in any career or calling.
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