Evoking readers’ emotions – a lesson from an unlikely place

How we feel about a piece of writing is as important as what we think about it. That’s true when reflecting on what we like, and it’s also true when interpreting the author’s intention. Whether it’s a heart-warming tale of romance to help you relax, or an action packed adventure to set the heart pounding, literature is all about the feels.

Those feelings are very important, and it’s useful to know what effect they will have on readers. Today I want to explore that using a modern literary classic, Deloitte consulting’s ‘Human Capital Trends 2013’.

Human what now?

OK, unless you work in the higher layers of HR management, or like me have been hired to write something in that field, you’ve probably never heard of this paper. But if you’ve ever worked in a large company then you’ve met its linguistic ilk. It’s a 25 page report on a management topic, rammed full of buzzwords and managerial jargon. If you grind your teeth at the phrase ‘moving forward’ or cringe at the title ‘innovating the talent brand’ then you get the idea. If not, lucky you.

I hate the sort of language these papers use. They hide their meaning behind linguistic acrobatics and trendy buzzwords, rather than clearly explaining their substance. It’s the corporate equivalent of a group of teenagers imitating the latest slang. I have to pause every few paragraphs as my eyes glaze over.

And yet, it serves a purpose.

Feeling good

This language isn’t just a bad habit. It’s designed to evoke a feeling. To inspire confidence in people who live in this buzzword world, or who are deeply clued into the latest management trends (yes, management has trends, just like fashion or literature – I don’t know what the management equivalent of urban fantasy is, maybe HR vampires, but if you’ve got an idea then post it below). To imply cutting edge thought and deep intelligence. To leave readers intrigued and maybe just a little confused, so that they go to the likes of Deloitte for help.

It makes readers feel like they’re part of an elite, an elite that reads and uses this sort of advice. But it also creates a sense of tension, as readers become convinced that there’s something here they ought to use, but don’t quite know how. It’s a tension that drives them to use organisations like Deloitte.

I don’t know how far this is deliberate, and how far it’s just how this corporate language has evolved through trial and error. But like a Mills and Boon novel, it’s all about the feelings.

So what?

This blog isn’t about corporate trends or buzzword bingo, so why is this relevant to fiction writing? Two reasons.

Firstly, whether you mean to or not, you will evoke feelings through your writing. Successful writing uses those feelings to drive behaviour, to pull readers in and make them buy what you’re selling – for Deloitte that’s consulting services, for authors it’s books. Think about what feelings you’re evoking, how they draw readers through the story, how you’ll leave them at the end.

Secondly, nothing works for everyone. That language in the Deloitte paper doesn’t inspire me, it annoys me. I’m not their customers, so that doesn’t matter. But you should be aware of who your writing will deter as well as who it will attract; how that will limit you; how it will limit the usefulness to you of those people’s opinions.

So there we go. I’ve vented my feelings on this bit of reading, and hopefully turned them into something useful. Now back to the world of human capital.


Joss Whedon on choosing words

Joss Whedon recently gave a great speech on gender inequality and feminism:


If you’re interested in the issue of gender equality – and I hope that you are – or you enjoy the writing of a modern TV great – and I hope that you do – then you’ll probably enjoy the whole video. But what I want to mention here, what caught my writerly ear, is what he discusses in the first few minutes – how words sound.

Forgetting the obvious

It’s easy to forget, when writing prose, that the sound of words can be as important as their meaning in building atmosphere. Poets use this all the time – choosing light, babbling sounds to describe a brook or heavy, solid words to describe a rock. But then, poetry is often about the very precise application of a small number of words. As prose writers, we’re trying to lay down a lot more letters on the page. We’re aiming for precision of meaning, and the precision of sound can get lost in the mix.

Still, if I use ugly, clunky words to describe my delicate brook, that ugly clunkiness is going to undermine my aim. I should bear that in mind.

What to do about it?

For me, this goes on the long list of things I will try to bear in mind when writing – I picked up another today from Victoria Grefer, a golden rule of description. Something gets added to my list most days, which mean that a lot of stuff has fallen off the list too. But as long as a few thinks stick, or become instinctual, I should keep improving.

I might try some poetry exercises as well. Mrs K has the fabulous Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled, and if I’m going to learn from two wordsmiths this week, then Whedon and Fry is about as awesome a combo as I could get.

Anybody else got any good tips or resources on this? I’d love to hear them.