This post is created specifically for students of Urban Squash Toronto, though the discussion on style in essay writing may have something in it for other writers, too. Jon from Bookends Writing is doing some volunteering with Urban Squash Toronto, which is a Toronto-based athletic and academic organization and program for youth. Learn more about Urban Squash Toronto at this link.
This post contains resources and tips on how to write an essay with some style, flair, and creativity. Note that this is not a set of instructions or a blueprint to follow. Rather, these are some suggestions and ideas, which you might take up or not, as it makes sense for your particular project or your own personal way of writing. Note as well that the tips and advice offered here does not apply to all essay writing. Many formal essay assignments will have very specific characteristics for essays in order to “check the boxes” and get the grades. Such strict elements of essays include things like thesis statements, topic sentences, evidence, argumentation, and so on. Always be sure to clarify the expectations for an essay with your instructor. Some instructors will require very strict adherence to formal essay conventions, whereas other instructors (or in specific courses) may have somewhat more creative approaches to essays.
What I am focusing on here are the more creative type of essays, ones that give students latitude with respect to the form and style of the writing. These types of essays will often be set up with questions or prompts that ask students to explore ideas, to reflect on an experience, or to speak from their own perspective on a topic. These types of reflective or exploratory essays will often allow the essay writer to draw on narrative writing techniques and elements from creative nonfiction. Below are a few tips on how to approach and then write an essay that includes somewhat more creative elements of form and style.
The sections of this post cover 1) prewriting, 2) framed narrative, 3) storytelling, and 4) literary devices and figurative language. Again, and to be clear, I am not suggesting that you use all of these techniques. Instead, maybe try to use some of this or even just one piece of this to help make your essay a little more creative or stylish.
With all essay writing, getting prepared and sorting out your ideas is key. There are a number of common strategies for essay prewriting, including:
- Word clouds
- Free writing
- And many many others!
All of these prewriting strategies are things I encouraged students in my essay writing classes to do in order to be successful writing formal essays. These are also good strategies for writing a more creative and stylish essay. Remember, a great essay is never written in just one shot. It takes planning, drafting, and revision. In many cases I have found that writing a first draft of an essay may be relatively easy, but then editing and revising may take much more time. It is important to allow your ideas to change through the process of writing, and to be prepared to change or revisit each and every sentence of the essay in second, third, or other subsequent drafts. As one master writer said to me: When I write, I discover what I mean to say.
One further strategy I find especially helpful for more creative or stylish essays is to include poetic inquiry in my prewriting. Poetic inquiry, in a nutshell, means writing some short poems or engaging in creative activities to explore the subject matter for the essay. By doing some creative activities first (or doing them after writing a first draft) a writer can discover interesting things about the subject or come up with evocative images and figurative language that will resonate with readers.
In the video included here, the example I use is of a poetic inquiry about going to the laundromat. If I was writing an essay about this experience, I would use the form of poetic inquiry to try to understand this subject and to get ideas for the essay. You can also read this piece in its entirety, along with the write-up for poetic inquiry, on page 13 in this linked sample of our book Expressive Subjects.
A stylish and creative essay may use elements that are common to many forms of fiction, including “framing” the essay. Framing a piece of writing is something like framing a painting. What you want to do is to put something at the beginning and at the end that act as bookends and indicate to readers that the narrative frame is being opened and then closed. The most straightforward way to do this is to put a short paragraph at the opening of the essay that talks about some specific thing, and then in the closing paragraph of the essay to again mention the same thing. A frame could also be a piece of a story that you begin at the opening but don’t resolve, and then close the essay by finishing the piece of the story you had left hanging.
Frames are very common in fiction writing, but they also work really well in essays or other forms of nonfiction. The video below offers an example of a simple frame for a piece of writing — the Preface for our book Expressive Subjects (page 1-3 in this linked sample). As you will see, I open the short chapter by recounting something from a comic strip, and then close the chapter by referring back to the same comic strip again. It is a simple technique in the writing, and not something that jumps off the page, but it serves the function of framing the chapter and introduces a piece of creativity and style. Even if readers don’t recognize it obviously, it is something that readers subconsciously enjoy as it sparks memory of the opening from just a few moments ago.
Writing an essay in which you reflect on your experience of something is much like telling a story. It can be helpful in writing such essays to revisit some of the main elements and conventions of storytelling and to be aware of the experience you narrate as a story. Pretty much every story will have a beginning, middle, and end, though sometimes a writer may begin a story by focusing on a moment of tension or action, perhaps as a flash-back or flash-forward. This technique of throwing the reader in the middle of the action is called “in medias res,” a Latin phrase that means “in the middle of things.” See page 6-7 in the sample of Expressive Subjects for a write-up on this storytelling technique.
An important element to think about that builds out of storytelling and that is especially relevant for reflective essays is the “movement” of a story. There are a number of patterns that are common across genres or traditions of storytelling. Some of the most popular stories are those that tell of a character overcoming adversity or going on a hero’s journey. These stories typically have a central character who begins in a place of ill fortune, and then through hard work and rising to the challenges eventually overcomes adversity. The video below goes over a few of the common movements in stories, and includes a piece by the acclaimed writer Kurt Vonnegut describing his approach to “the shape of stories.”
Literary Devices and Figurative Language
The stylish essay may use some of the many elements of poetry and fiction to give it a creative flair. I have only included a few in the list below, and you will probably recognize that there are many more of these techniques from study and reading in any literature course. A word of warning: you may not want to use too many literary techniques at the same time. Having too many in an essay, even a creative one, may overwhelm the reader. It may be best to try out just two or three over the course of the whole essay. Then again, you may take it as a challenge to see how many you can include and still have the essay come out smooth.
- Repetition – Sometimes the repetition of a key phrase or word can add a powerful effect in an essay.
- Metaphor – Using a metaphor or an allegory (an extended metaphor) in a piece of creative nonfiction can convey deeper meaning. Depending on the subject matter for the essay, a specific activity or object may metaphorically allow you to narrate a bigger experience.
- Alliteration – A nice element of style, though not to be overused, alliteration (repeating a sound with words that have the same opening letters = “the sneaky snake slithered”) can add some flair to an essay.