• Sarah

Writing with Emotion

Updated: Mar 10


I haven’t picked up my journal in a while. I visit my old paisley leather friend now and then, faithful over the years, though inconsistent. I visit during the highest and lowest of emotions; in the moments of inspiration and the moments of introspection. Those don’t strike every day. Usually my journal loses out to the grocery list, my latest editing project, or even this blog.

But now, once again, emotion flows through my pen. These last few weeks have changed me. They’ve brought loss greater than any I’ve known, grief that I hardly know how to put into words, and conflicting emotions that fight for expression. The only way to make peace with the internal assault of these soldiers of sorrow is to surrender—to send them out—and the best way I know how is through words and tears. The lined pages listen in silence, absorbing the ink of a broken heart—ink that leaves black blots to match my messy feelings. I try to capture the raw emotion into strokes before it becomes simply processed pain. I don’t want to feel this anymore, but I don’t want to forget the struggle.

My journal knows the unpolished me—the longhand thoughts that don’t always fit in order because cursive doesn’t have a copy and paste function, the typos that my inner editor forgives, the feelings I would express more elegantly were I to share them with someone else. Because of this, my journal keeps my best, deepest emotional writing.

Chances are, unless you’re writing an academic textbook or an analytical essay, emotion will be an important component of your writing. You don’t have to be a “journaler” to tap into the emotion of a story. Every story is rooted in experience, imagination, or both, and emotion is rooted in experience.

Use your experiences

If you’re trying to write a scene where you or your character is angry, go back to a time in your life when you experienced that emotion. How did you feel? How did you express yourself? The excitement of a win, the heartbreak of a break-up, the anxiety of a confrontation—all become fodder to fuel your writing. If you’ve felt it, write it. But be authentic. Readers can tell when emotion is contrived.

Express the emotion creatively

Showing vs. telling is more important than ever when it comes to emotion. To convey the emotion is to capture the experience of the feeling—not just to say “I feel _____.” What does your body feel like when you experience that emotion? What did you say or do? Try to avoid clichés like “tears streamed down her face” or “red in the face.” Don’t overdo it either; a little emotion, well-expressed, is more powerful than excessive sentimentality.

Identify the cause and effect of the emotion

Feelings can be motivations or reactions. A feeling of admiration might motivate you to copy the hairstyle, habit, or house decorations of a friend. A feeling of inadequacy might drive you to work harder. Or, harsh words from your boss might cause you to feel hurt. Because of the loss of a loved one, you/your character might feel angry. Those reactions often then turn back into motivations (because you felt hurt, you retaliated by…). Where is the emotion leading?

Someday my present grief will inform my writing in a new way. Hard as this loss has been, I know it will bring empathy and authenticity to my stories. For now, my journal holds the secrets of my sorrow. Perhaps, someday, I will be able to distill it into a story to be shared—a story made stronger by the experience of a shattered heart.


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© 2020 by Sarah Barnum / TrailBlaze Writing & Editing

Grass Valley, CA

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