I’m not Tense; who’s Tense?!

Which of these two sentences sounds more interesting? “I like the dish that is on the mantel, I thought to myself, as the soup burned” or “I like the blue, speckled dish adorning the mantle, I thought to myself, as the chicken noodle soup on the stove burned.” If I had to take a guess, I would say most of you picked the second sentence. Now, consider why you made this choice. The reasoning behind your choice is most likely because the second sentence is more descriptive, appealing to your senses. It also provides some conflict, or tension, making it more exciting to read, causing suspense. Which is in part what I am discussing in this blog post today! This post will detail how you can effectively use strategies such as tension and description to improve the effectiveness of a creative writing or academic assignment.

I’ve had clients come in for tutoring for help with argumentative papers, for example. Their professor has made comments about the lack of persuasion in their argument. The first piece of advice I give them after reading their paper is not to just argue their side. Reading an argumentative paper that functions just to prop one side up is boring. Examining all sides of the issue, and giving credit to the opposing side when credit is due, allows you to appropriately set up your own argument now that you’ve considered all angles. This can add more sophistication and credibility in your argument, because you’re not hiding anything. More importantly, I would argue, it adds tension. Tension is created when two opposing sides are presented, because it “is defined as trouble on the page” and “is conflict,” according to Heather Sellers in The Practice of Creative Writing (205). By utilizing tension in your academic writing, your papers will be more engaging to read and most likely, considered more persuasive.

Description in academic writing is also very effective, and I’m not only discussing imagery. I have had clients that need help with rhetorical analysis papers, as another tutor astutely pointed out, this is just another argumentative essay. The title makes this paper seem daunting, but all that is required of the student is to analyze a how a message is conveyed in a story, therefore affecting the rhetorical situation. Many times students’ analyses only touch the surface, analyzing general pathos in the piece but not analyzing at the word or sentence level. This is where description can come into great use! If you not only describe the emotion of the piece, but what diction for example, makes the piece emotional, this is can be interpreted more specific, detailed scrutiny of the piece.

Of course, tension and description are not only useful in academic writing, but also in creative writing. All you nonfiction essayists and poets can use this in your own writing, and to help students who venture into the writing center for help with creative writing. Description and tension is important to the progress of every narrative. Whenever a client or classmate is stumped on how to begin a story, I ask them: “What makes a good story?” In some ways this always involves the progression of the plot, the beautiful, descriptive language used, or both! The progression of the plot almost always involves tension. The lack thereof, often results in the reader becoming bored from a flat plotline. Connecting creative writing with the client’s own reading experience is an effective way to get them over the dreaded writer’s block, because it allows them to emulate writing styles that are pleasurable to them—which often use strategies like imagery to improve upon the descriptiveness of their piece. This strategy also allows writers to become aware of how tension is used in other stories, for example, how tension or conflict comes to a head as rising action.

A problem that many students, including myself, encounter when writing a narrative is stiff dialogue or action. This is the result of many years of academic writing for school, and is especially true if you don’t write creative pieces constantly. Which leads me to another tip that my creative writing professor offered to me: write all the time. Keep a little notebook and note all the things you see in a day, or what is it about Scandal that makes being Olivia Pope so enticing, for example. Like I mentioned earlier, tension is a great way to spice up the action in your story. To expand a bit upon my first example, admiring the dish on the mantle while the soup is burning pulls a positive experience and negative one together causing tension, and allowing for more descriptive devices like imagery, to occur because there are more opportunities. For example, you could discuss how the soup looked when you pulled it from the burner, how the kitchen smelled, or even if the perception of the plate is now tainted because you will forever associate it with burnt chicken noodle soup.

I hope you find these strategies to be helpful in tutoring and in practice in your own writing!

-Hailey 🙂


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