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ESL Insights: 8 English Writing Techniques You Probably Didn't Know

If writing in English is a challenge for you, you're not alone. An article on the Oxford Royale Academy's website, a leading international summer learning program in the UK, discusses the many reasons why English is a difficult language to learn and write. Among those reasons include:

  • The large number of rules (and then exceptions to those rules!)
  • Word order
  • Words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled
  • Homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled different and have different meanings)
  • Synonyms that aren't interchangeable
  • Idioms
  • Regional dialects
  • Traces of archaic English left over in the language

However, despite these challenges for English language learners, writing in English can be an exciting way to explore how words interact with each other through various literary devices, otherwise known as literary techniques. English language writers have been using these techniques for centuries to make their writing stand out and memorable for readers. In this article, we will explore some of the best English writing techniques to use to take your writing to the next level and move beyond the basics. The best part is—whether you are just learning to write in English or have been writing for decades, these techniques will always enhance your writing and make it more enjoyable for audiences to read.

1. Metaphor and Simile

Metaphorical writing is the power of poets and should be a part of your daily writing practice if you want to enhance your English writing skills. A metaphor is a figure of speech that forms a comparison, whether implied or implicit, between two unrelated things. In other words, a metaphor draws a connection or resemblance between two different or contradictory things. A simile, by comparison, is a metaphorical expression that uses the words "like" or "as".

Let's look at a few examples:

  • My brother is the black sheep of our family. Note that this metaphor draws a comparison between one's brother and a sheep (two ordinarily unconnected things) in order to be descriptive. A black sheep is considered less valuable than white sheep, so it stands out from the flock. Being compared to a black sheep shows that the writer's brother was the odd one out in their family and likely looked down on or disenfranchised for some reason.
  • Her smile is as bright as the sun. In this simile, a woman's smile is being compared to the sun, and they are (obviously) two different things. However, through this simile, the writer is able to express a smile that is exceptionally bright and cheerful, even if it is exaggeration (or hyperbole, which is also another great English writing technique).

2. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is the deliberate use of exaggeration and claims that are not meant to be taken literally. Many times, an expression can contain both hyperbole and simile, such as the sentence used in the paragraphs above, "Her smile is as bright as the sun." The reader understands that her smile was not literally the same as the sun but the hyperbole allows the writer to express emphasis in an engaging and creative way.

3. Alliteration, Consonance and Assonance

Alliteration is the intentional repetition of consonants at the beginning of a series of words within a passage for auditory emphasis. Consonance is very similar to alliteration, except it is the repetition of consonant sounds within words (as opposed to the beginning of them). Conversely, assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds within words (as opposed to consonant sounds).

These literary techniques are popular in genres like poetry and are great ways to bring attention to a particular part of a sentence through subtle or overt auditory emphasis. The human ear is attracted to repeated sounds and picks up on alliteration and assonance in such a way that makes ordinary writing more appealing. And it's incredibly simple to do!

4. Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is a literary and writing technique in which a writer gives hints to his or her reader about events that will happen later in the story. This can be done subtly, through imagery, or more directly as a kind of all-knowing (omniscient) voice within the narration. For example, when a character walks into a room and sees a cut red rose dying on the windowsill, it could foreshadow something else or someone else that would soon die. Watching a sunrise could foreshadow the birth of a baby or the birth of a new understanding of life, while watching the sunset would foreshadow the end of a life or way of living.

Foreshadowing requires a working knowledge of imagery and how it can be used in a story to give more depth to characters and situations.

5. Allusion

Allusion is when a writer references a person, place, thing or idea that has some sort of historical, cultural, or literary significance. For example, if a writer mentions that a character is "a regular Einstein," the reader should be able to understand that the character is highly intelligent. Likewise, if the backyard of a home is described as a "Garden of Eden," the reader understands that it contains lush landscaping and potential fruit trees, like the Biblical Garden of Eden.

The reason allusion is such a powerful English writing technique is its way of simplifying complex ideas into a few words, or even just one word. For example, a writer can use the word "Quixotic" to allude to the famous hero of Don Quixote, written by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and published in 1605. Quixote is an example of a character with overblown idealism, and the name is now synonymous with the pursuit of lofty ideals through unrealistic and over-the-top chivalry. Alluding to him, even briefly, suggests much about the author's philosophy and thematic elements of the writing. It deepens the writing to levels beyond reading the words at face value.

6. Imagery

Imagery is the use of figurative language that appeals to our physical senses to represent ideas or objects. When you see the word "imagery," you might at first only associate it with what can be seen (as in, a visual image). However, imagery is much more than this—it involves all five of the senses.

When using imagery in your writing, you stir your reader's interest by engaging their sensory experience. In providing details related to sights, sounds, smells, sensations and tastes, your writing can jog a reader's memory or make a reader feel like he or she is in the same place you're writing about. This is the power of imagery and why you should make extensive use of it as an English writing technique.

7. Irony

In English writing, irony is the use of words to express something other than, or the opposite of, the literal meaning. Think of it as the difference between appearance and reality. Here are a few examples of verbal irony (or irony that might be spoken in narration or dialogue):

  • They get along like cats and dogs.
  • That roast was as tender as leather.
  • They enjoyed the show as much as a cat enjoys a bath.

Irony can be situational, as well, such as when a car is photographed parked beneath a "no parking" sign. Another example of situational irony might be when a groomsman writes an obituary (instead of a congratulatory speech) for a groom's wedding day reception.

8. Sarcasm

It makes sense that we'd discuss sarcasm after discussing irony, because sarcasm is an extreme form of verbal irony (as opposed to situational irony). To help you understand a little more about sarcasm, let's look at the root definition of the word. LiteraryTerms.net puts it like this: Sarcasm comes from the Greek words 'sark' meaning 'flesh,' and 'asmos' meaning 'to tear or rip.' So it literally means 'ripping flesh'—a pretty bloody image for a type of speech that we use all the time!

A final note on moderation

As with any great thing, moderation is a good rule to follow. Too much use of any of the English writing techniques we've discussed above can have the opposite effect from what you intended and actually lower the quality of your writing. You should also avoid overcrowding your writing with figurative language, metaphorical expressions and auditory emphasis unless you are writing poetry or some other kind of highly stylized form. Remember—with these techniques, a little goes a long way in strengthening your writing.

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