First Person: I, ME--Usually, in an expressive essay, the writer writes about himself or herself, and includes his thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories, and emotions. An expressive essay is written in the first person (I, me, and sometimes, we and us). Use of the 2nd person (you, yours) is not appropriate in this kind of essay unless directly addressing a specific audience. .
NOTE: Student writers should double-check the Assignment Sheet for that paper to make sure they understand what person (first, second, third) their instructor means this paper to be in.
Less Formal Style Allowed--An expressive essay is normally not subject to all the strict rules governing some other forms of college writing. For example, contractions and informal language might be allowable where they would not be permitted in informative writing. However, even though an expressive essay ordinarily uses a less formal style than other kinds of academic writing, writers still must follow rules of grammar, spelling and word usage. Also, sentence structure must not be informal and colloquial or use slang phrases.
Use Dialogue—It is customary in an expressive essay to use dialogue. English almost always requires joining-words for dialogue or quotes: He said, “Welcome to the party.”
The Five Senses—In expressive and descriptive writing, writers use descriptive language; that is, they do not simply name people, places, things, and ideas that they make reference to. They think in terms of the five senses:
Use "feeling" in the abstract sense—This kind of “feeling” is different from the feeling in the Five Senses. This refers to the writer’s mood or feelings “about” something. In expressive essays, writers go to great lengths to describe the feelings of love, happiness, joy, sadness, pleasure, fury, fear, shame, contempt, and desire. Although these are intangible, careful description of these feelings can make the difference between a ho-hum essay and attention-grabbing one. Students should take care, however, not to find themselves in the middle of a description they would feel uncomfortable sharing with the class at some possible later date.
No multiple exclamation points or all caps—Good writers let their words carry the load, and do not rely on exclamation points. Even if the situation is very exciting or emotional, exclamations like: "Wow!" "Damn!" "Oh God!" or the like should be avoided. Writers weaken their writing when they use ALL CAPITALS or strings of exclamation marks (!!!!!!!!) to emphasize an exclamation. This immediately tells the reader that the writer is inexperienced and amateurish. Let the words do the work, not punctuation.
Use precise language—Good writers use adjectives that are colorful and descriptive, and that are strong and meaningful by themselves. Each one pulls its own weight. For instance, a sentence describing a slice of fruit pie as “tart and steaming, topped with a dollop of sweet, white whipped cream slowly melting down the glistening, fruity sides” is both descriptive and appetizing. However, to describe the same pie as “delicious, attractive, beautiful and elegant” uses plenty of big words, but does nothing to be descriptive. The reader gets no visual images. That sentence is simply verbal fat—a string of bulky words that describe nothing—and thus bad writing. However, writers must not strain for this—to write “the pie had a dollop of sweet, white whipped cream on top” is descriptive. “The pie was gloriously crowned with a fluffy, gleaming cloud of exquisitely sweet, snowy white whipped cream” is just silly and phony, and sounds more like the writing of the 1800’s than that of the 21st century.
Strong Action Verbs are Best—Descriptive writers rely on action verbs whenever possible. They strive to edit out every non-necessary instance of the weak verb “to be.”
EX.: A fire engine was on my street. It was loud and exciting. The hardware store was on fire. Many people were there.
BETTER: The fire engine roared down my street, its siren wailing and horn blasting. Huge flames from the hardware store licked the tree branches, sending up billows of thick, black smoke. The shocked crowds clapped their hands over their noses and fled to safety.
Vague descriptions are weak—General descriptions do little for a piece of expressive writing.
EX.: “She quickly drove away,” or “Many of us went to the party,”or “She looked really nice at the prom.”
BETTER: “She jumped into her Porsche and burned rubber to get away,” or “At least a dozen of us put on bathing suits and attended the beachfront barbecue,” or “All eyes were on her as she danced into the room in her sparkling emerald dress and with her auburn hair piled on top of her head, perfect ringlets cascading down.”
Your descriptions should be as specific as possible without becoming scientific-sounding. Numbers are the great lie-detector, but be sure you have information to back up each number you use. Never write “He was three quarters drunk,” unless you did a breathalyzer test on him to verify such a precise conclusion.
Limit adverbs (words that end in –ly). Good writers let their action verbs do the work whenever possible instead of using an adverb.
EX: The fire truck came quickly. BETTER: The fire truck raced down the street.
EX: She sang sweetly. BETTER: Her voice rang through the choir loft with the clarity of a crystal bell.
Two or more adverbs strung together suggests an inexperienced writer. [Hint: Most adverbs end in –“ly,” like “greatly,” “quickly,” “gravely” or “absolutely.”]
Adapted from a handout by Owen Williamson, UTEP