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April 6, 2012 / amber0699

Emotional Writing Takes Flight

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is famous for unveiling the dangers of the pesticide DDT to the environment. The book is credited to have brought about the ban for DDT in the U.S. in 1972. As a fish and wildlife major, I was intrigued and appalled with this reading. Imagine, 65,000 red-winged blackbirds and starlings poisoned by farmers in 1959! Emotional writing is lackluster without the facts, but Carson supplies these very well and is therefore extremely credible.

Carson opens chapter 8, And No Birds Sing, with a letter from a housewife to a leading ornithologist. The housewife describes the lack of birds in her area where they used to be plentiful and how the local children were asking about the birds. This personalize the introduction of the chapter, and grabs the reader’s attention right from the start.

Carson goes on to state that certain species are American symbols, such as the robin and the bald eagle. She describes their declines in detail and invokes a sense of patriotism in the American reader. The reader then feels a pull of empathy for these special birds.

The deaths of the birds of all species are described very vividly, down to fits and convulsions. The reader is overwhelmed with a sense of righteous anger or sorrow over their deaths. A claim for justice shouts between these lines.

Carson uses quotes from every-day people to depict what is going on.”Pigeons are suddenly dropping out of the sky dead,” and “You can drive a hundred or two hundred miles outside London and not see a single kestrel,” are quotes that give vivid visualizations to the reader and personalize the chapter.

Last, but not least, Carson strikes fear into the reader by revealing the dangers to human beings from DDT. This is done by describing a situation in California of workers who nearly died from handling treated foliage.

Carson does not hold back on the language she uses. Words such as death, killer, and poisoned are not covered up, but are brought to light and used to provoke strong emotional appeals.

Personally, I believe that it was the use of emotional writing that led Silent Spring to become such a success. Facts alone would not have gotten the message across in such an effective manner. What do you think?

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9 Comments

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  1. lachlanpetersen / Apr 9 2012 11:39 am

    About your post, I think your intro paragraph needed a little extra flavour to make it a bit more intriguing for the reader. Just one or two extra sentences at the start to generate some interest would have been good. Apart from slight grammar errors like, “This personalize the introduction…” and ” killer, and poisoned…”, your article is well written and solid.

    I feel that when DDT was banned and when this book was published, was a very turbulent time for western society. The late 60s and early 70s was a period of immense social movement and protest, especially for topics concerning the environment. So personally, I feel that it might be a bit rash to accredit this book entirely for the DDT ban, people love to idolize personalities. Especially people who have since died. And don’t forget New York times published the book, and they are often at the helm of critical acclaim for the book.

    That being said, people do like to get whipped up into a frenzy, and as I mentioned earlier, this was probably the easiest time in history to do so. So I feel that a good dose of emotional writing would not have gone astray.

    I do not think that emotional writing has the same staying power now as it did then. People have such easy access to information and loose interest so fast that without the proper facts your cause will be lost as fast as the Kony 2012 video did.

    You say “Facts alone would not have gotten the message across”. I feel that neither would emotional wording alone. Facts alone way work in an science report, and emotions alone may work for a magazine article, but neither alone will get the public to respond to your work with action.

  2. alistairsisson / Apr 10 2012 10:14 am

    I think lachlanpetersen agrees with you but doesn’t realise it; as you said, “Emotional writing is lacklustre without the facts”, but “facts alone would not have gotten the message across”.

    I think you’re right in asserting that personalizing writing makes it more interesting and effective. Perhaps one thing you missed is how emotional writing is used to convey the relevance of the issue to the reader; i.e. (without wanting to sound too cynical) “why should we care about these birds?”. There are obviously some issues that people don’t seem to care about and perhaps this is due to the writing on the topic lacking personal relevance and emotion (?).

    But, overall, good job!

  3. muza2009 / Apr 11 2012 5:15 am

    Both Alistair and Lachlan make very good points about emotional writing and scientific facts together getting the message across and I think in some instances its easier to write emotionally e.g. talking about diseases or animals. Would it be fair to say that you can not write emotionally about nanotechnology or is there some emotional way, to paraphrase Alistair’s question, of asking people to care about neutrinos? Or maybe there is no need for people to “emotionally care” about neutrinos?

  4. shortfletch / Apr 12 2012 5:35 pm

    I think Muza2009 is correct in suggesting that there are some topics that are easier to write emotionally about because people are already emotionally engaged with these topics. I see a cute bird and think “awe what a cute bird, I hope it has a happy life.” I think about neutrons and go “meh,”. However, maybe it is the role of a science communicator is to find that angle and make people emotionally engaged with the science topic. Nanotechnology has medical applications. This could apply to my friends or myself, and honestly, I care about myself a lot more than some cute endangered bird.

    That being said, I do think emotional writing should be used sparingly. If overused we might end up with a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation and as Laclan suggested, people will stop listening to the message. This is reason I avoid anything PETA puts out. It’s not because I hate cute little animals, but because according to PETA everything humans do is ‘the most evil thing ever!!!’ So instead of transforming myself one small step at a time, I give up and join a league of super villains (or would if I could find the location of their lair).

    I know my friends would abandon me pretty quickly if I burst into class everyday sobbing and declaring it to be the worst day ever, when really I had only dropped my pen. It takes effort to be emotionally invested in something, and people only have so much extra effort. I can’t care about everything. If neutrinos had been real (or are someday proven to be real), then a science communicator will need to explain to me, what is so important about Einstein being wrong about the theory of relativity, because at the moment I just think ‘meh.’

    Still there are times (like when a friend dies) that you do need to burst into class sobbing. Similarly there are times when emotional writing should be used. This leads to the questions: when should emotional writing be used, and who gets to decided when it is appropriate?

  5. JamieAlexandraGraves / Apr 13 2012 8:49 am

    I agree with shortfletch in that the key element to incorporating emotion successfully into writing – scientific or non-scientific – is finding the correct angle and pitching it at the audience in such a way that they can connect emotionally. And I think the most effective and engaging way to achieve this is to relate other people and their emotions. I think you have touched on this well by explaining how the very first paragraph is a letter written by a worried and concerned housewife. By stating these emotions of worry and concern from a fellow human being really helps engage others as well. Also, your choice of quotes that you have incorporated in your blog from anxious locals and also highlighting at the end how this harmful DDT chemical is affecting humans also emphasizes how powerful the use of emotion is in writing.

  6. lodoubt / Apr 13 2012 12:20 pm

    One thing I would have thought this would have been a good opportunity to muse on is change in attitudes over time. Silent Spring was written a long time ago, and I at least feel that emotionally charged writing was a more accepted means of communication back then. It is instinctively viewed with much heavier scepticism now (often for good reason). But that may just be me.

  7. fullclever / Apr 13 2012 1:22 pm

    I fully agree with you, Amber. Carson’s writing is probably powerful because of her ability to go straight into our hearts and create an emotional revolution. To be honest, you are too a great writer.
    Your post flows very well and the points you highlighted are the most relevant. In my opinion, the author was also effective because of the irrefutable evidences.
    I love it!

    • amber0699 / Apr 14 2012 7:51 am

      Thanks for all of your comments everyone! I do agree that emotional writing alone would not have gotten the message across. I will work more on my proofreading in the future. And that is very important alistair, I should have included it as it is very fundamental to emotional writing. I believe that people can write emotionally about neutrinos as long as there is a link to something that people care about, such as possible future discoveries due to exploring their potential. Originally, it might have been hard for people to think that there could be emotionally writing done about a chemical like DDT, but because it was linked to the death of birds, it was done. If everyone wrote everything with emotion, I think I might be more engaged honestly, but maybe it would become dull over time. I certainly would read more skeptically, that’s for sure! Changes in attitude over time would have been interesting to include! Thanks for all the critiques and compliments!

  8. noelynn / Apr 24 2012 3:45 am

    The post was well presented. The title was complemented by the picture. Emotional writing takes the writer to heights of suppressing your own and presenting the facts as it is. But it was interesting to read about Carson’s approach from the birds to the deadly DDT chemical.

    However, like you admitted and I emphasized honesty can pay a long way.

    Great work!

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