The Power of the Image: a Tool for Your Academic Writing

[This article is intended specifically for students writing in the Humanities and Social Science disciplines. While image is a powerful, effective tool for adding interest to academic writing, there are some disciplines, such as the technical science fields, where this advice might not be applicable.]

Imagine clicking away at your keyboard, you feel the confident pop of each button as your fingers depress from one to the next. You pause, but only for a second to take a sip from the steaming ceramic mug on your left—it invigorates you even more. You know exactly what you want to say because, for once, you aren’t stuck by the monotony of strictly structured, formulaic essays. Instead, you’re in a writing zone of your own creating, and though you, like every student before you, had to start with a prompt or an assigned topic, you are moving forward with ease. But how? Every other time you’ve sat down and toiled over how to begin, watching the digital clock in the bottom right hand of your screen inch closer and closer to midnight. Why is that you can so easily move through this essay? The answer is simple, in your introduction you used a creative writing technique known as Image that not only propelled you forward, but also added interest to your essay, setting you apart from your peers. Academic college life can be very cutthroat, especially when your program is competitive, but you want to be set apart from your peers. You want your professors to remember your essays, and employing powerful images in academic papers is one way to accomplish this difficult feat.

As a new college instructor and veteran writing center tutor, I have seen a thousand essays that begin with the same format—“Today I’m going to discuss the working conditions for children in Indonesia,” “My paper topic is why we should save the whales.” While these introductions are fine, they are a dime-a-dozen and do little to further your discussion, aside from plainly stating your topic. However, if you present your readers with a powerful, gripping image that sticks with them, it can be fodder for the rest of your essay and actually help you compose your paper.

Consider this introduction on the topic of child labor: “Her back is hunched over a sewing machine half her height and all of her weight. Each stitch brings her closer to the end of her twelve hour shift when she can return home to play with her little brothers. Her tiny, calloused fingers work their way over a neon pink Nike swoosh, a brand that she will never wear because her clothes came from the missionary workers who visited her village last year. She is hungry, but during her short break she did not have time to walk the five miles back to her home, instead she works patiently, ignoring the new blister forming on her palm. Stories such as this can be found all over Indonesia, and the most troubling part is that they key players are often children.”

An introduction such as this not only establishes what you will discuss throughout the paper, but it also hooks your reader in with vivid details and emotional investment in the story that you are about tell. By creating a narrative grounded in strong imagery as the basis of your topic, you have established a theme that you can carry throughout the rest of the essay. While the above introduction is a fictional story, basic research about the conditions of child laborers in Indonesia reveal elements of these harsh working conditions.

If you feel as though you are stuck in your writing process, you can return to this image to transition yourself from one topic point to the next. For example, if I began this essay with a description of working conditions, by returning to the image of the young girl running her finger of the Nike swoosh, I can then begin to discuss the popular American companies that actively use sweatshop labor. An imagistic introduction can pave the way for interesting, imagistic transitions and they are sure to impress your professors.

You might be wondering how to begin crafting an image filled introduction. This can be broken down into a few simple, easy to follow steps:

  1. Get comfortable with topic that you will be writing about. Are there any human subjects in this topic? What is the controversy? What is your perspective of the issue at hand? Can you anticipate how your readers will respond to this topic?
  2. Pick a side or perspective on this topic. If you believe in the stance that you are presenting, chances are you will have a stronger appeal to your readers because they will be able to tell that you care about it.
  3. Conduct basic research on the perspective in which you will write from. Being well informed when you begin to craft an image is crucial to your credibility. You want your readers to not only be hooked into your essay, but also trust you as a reliable narrator.
  4. Make a list of points that might further your emotional or intellectual appeal. Jotting down details and facts can be crucial in keeping your thoughts organized and in helping you include many details to strengthen your introduction.
  5. Begin small and work your way out. By starting your introduction with a brief descriptive sentence you can set a tone for your essay and give yourself a good base in which to begin.
  6. Don’t forget the adjectives. Remember School House Rock? Your introduction is an excellent place to unpack your adjectives. But remember, too much of a good thing can be very, very bad. Always use adjectives to supplement your essay, not guide it.
  7. Be Specific. Small details such as the “pink Nike swoosh” in our sample introduction add a level of authenticity to your paper. While I may not know that the Nike swoosh is pink, by saying that it is, I am giving my readers a specific item to envision. Specific details are so important.
  8. Show more, tell less. The biggest part of imagery is making sure that you show your readers what you want them to know. Think back to our example introduction, I could have said that I was going to discuss sweatshop labor, however, showing my reader an image of a young girl in a sweatshop has a much greater effect.

The technique of imagistic writing can transform your paper from dime-a-dozen quality to impressive ‘A’ paper material by hooking in your readers and making them want to read your work. Chances are, your professor has more than twenty-five papers to grade at any given time, if you can interest them with an imagistic introduction, the task of reading your paper could delight them. Every time a student turns in an essay that has strong images I am thrilled because their papers are generally more interesting to read. Instead of telling me why a topic is important they are showing why it is important. Stop toiling over academic essays, let your images guide them—it can give you a base to start from and even guide your transitions from topic to topic, and it will certainly set your paper apart from the mundane “Today I’m going to tell you about” topic sentence.


-Lauren T.


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