Feel this: what environmental writing is really about

In a recent Writer’s Digest, author David Corbett wrote an inspiring piece on the “subtle differences” between emotions and feelings.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but geek out about how that subtle difference relates directly to environmental copywriting.

To the average person, you may think I’m stretching the connection.

But, really, any writing is an effort to connect deeply with the readers feelings.

And environmental writing is really no different.

How do we use the connection between emotions, feelings and actions?

Let’s first start with emotion, which Corbett describes as the “first-response reaction to an action” and is usually displayed on the page through an actual act.

For example, you’re angry because on your daily commute you see that the beach is closed for swimming – again – due to pollution in the water.

So you swear a little bit as you drive by. Bad language is your reaction to the anger and injustice you feel at the grossness of humans.

But, to write really good emotion, Corbett instructs:

To create genuine emotion when crafting a scene, identify the most likely or obvious response your character might have, then ask: What other emotion might she be experiencing? Have the character express or exhibit that.

So, in our water pollution example, swearing follows anger, the first-layer emotion.

But, it turns out, you promised your kids you’d take them swimming this afternoon, and your youngest is a poor swimmer but pushes the limit to keep up with his siblings. Every time you go there you get another gray hair from the stress.

That anger for the environmental injustice swiftly leads to relief. You won’t have to worry about your sons’ safety today, and that makes you deeply happy.

So… intense joy? That’s the emotion on you’re actually feeling about the disgustingly yucky water. And maybe you feel a little bit guilty about that.

This is where things get interesting…

When I read Corbett’s explanation, the environmental writer in me freaked out. I use this process nearly every day. But in copywriting, we call it the “So, what?” process.

Whether I’m writing a donation letter, website, or a scene about a mom and her kids swimming, I’ve been trained to look past the obvious first response.

For copywriters, this is where you’ll start to find the real benefits of your product or service. Veteran Clayton Makepeace has been teaching young copywriters this process for years and calls that first-level emotion “Faux Benefits,” or “a product feature masquerading as a benefit.”

Take it to the next level

Beyond mining for deeper benefits, Corbett also advises aspiring authors to pick out the very thing readers don’t want to happen.

For example, to push the readers toward dread, panic or terror, you need to create the impression that these emotions are in no way inevitable. The readers are trying to avoid the negative feeling. It’s hope that “the terrible thing” can be circumvented that makes them feel the dread, panic or terror once it’s presented, and actually intensifies it.

Don’t environmental readers feel this hope all the time?

We don’t want to feel the bad feelings that are so often tied up with environmental issues.

We want, desperately, to believe that the end-of-the-world-environmental-destruction we so fear isn’t inevitable.

Like Corbett, I believe it’s the hope those outcomes can be avoided that makes us feel them even stronger.

So, once we’ve identified what we don’t want to happen with the environment, with your green business, with your readers feelings… what then?

Throw out some old rules

If we take the time to find the deeper benefits and the 2nd or 3rd tier of feelings, we’ll foster empathy for the environmental appeal, and find that magic moment where what we’re feeling corresponds with the appeal.

How do we do that? Corbett answers that for us too, with a twist.

Recent neurological research suggests that feeling and cognition coincide, which is to say that a major factor in experiencing a feeling is the assessment of it. This means that, despite the… constant drumbeat of “show, don’t tell,” readers need some processing of feeling to register it meaningfully.

Hallelujah! Permission to actually say what I mean!

Corbett insists that when given space after reading about something that moved your feelings, you’re allowed to apply it to your own life.

Do I feel this way too? What would it mean for my life if the beach never reopened and my kids couldn’t ever splash in the waves? 

For copywriters, this important little nugget should give us some freedom to spell things out a little clearly. Sometimes.

Make it personal and wrap it up

After you’ve successfully told the story of your environmental organization, and given the reader a chance to apply it to their own lives, it’s time to wrap it up with a straightforward call to action.

Because, although this is surely fascinating stuff, we’re all busy. Keep your stories relevant to both your organization and to the feelings you want brought out from  your reader.

Then, give them a clear way to act on those recently risen emotions.

After all, emotion is good, identifying the right feelings are super…but getting someone to take action is even better.

 

Published by

Danielle Vick

environmental copywriter, green business fanatic, scientific translator, and your key to saving the world...

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