“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.” — Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Mind-blowing, isn’t it?
But do you realize what made this sentence so “mind-blowing”? The strategic use of metaphor.
We have always wondered how certain writers manage to leave us in awe and inspired. You might think you can’t achieve it, but with the proper techniques and practice, it isn’t.
While many elements make up powerful writing, one of the techniques is literary devices. What are literary devices, you ask?
They are tools writers use to heighten their narrative and evoke emotions to convey their message. Instead of simply stating things for what they are, literary devices manage to bring writing to life and leave a more substantial impact on readers, especially in the case of creative writing assignments.
How You Can Use Literary Devices to Write an Essay
Being a college student, you are bound to be bombarded with several writing assignments. Whether it’s a narrative essay, book critique, or personal statement, knowing how to inject literary devices into your writing can make a huge difference.
More than getting the grades you want, it’s about embracing the art of storytelling and making efforts to ‘wow’ your instructors.
You can be lazy and churn out the same old essay.
Or you can take the use of literary devices and your writing to the next level.
The choice is yours.
Decided to go with the latter? Good. Here’s everything you need to know about using literary devices to improve your essay-writing skills.
How do Literary Devices Improve College Essay Writing?
Literary devices, if used smartly, can take your writing from ‘meh’ to ‘wow.’ Here’s how they enhance your writing and take it to the next level.
What is this ‘depth,’ you might wonder? Well, ‘depth’ is what hooks readers and keeps them invested in your writing. It is that ‘oomph’ factor that makes your essay riveting.
When you use literary devices to put your message across, you can make people ponder about the setting you create, the characters you develop, or the situations you describe. Well-placed literary devices have the power to heighten your writing which would have otherwise been flat and dull.
Paint a Picture
You’ve heard of the age-old writing advice, “Show, Don’t Tell”, haven’t you? It encourages writers to write vividly and paint a picture in the minds of readers which is way more powerful than a thousand words.
Using literary devices can help you achieve that because you let readers visualize what you’re trying to say, leaving a more significant impact in their minds.
Want to know more about writing descriptively?
Watch this video by Darin Mount, wherein he throws more light on this subject
Evoke Emotional Response
We can all agree that the best writing connects with the reader and evokes an emotional response. Whether it’s sadness, joy, anger, or disdain - using literary devices to make readers feel what you want them to feel is always a winner.
Make it Interesting
Last but not least, literary devices make the piece more pleasurable to read.
No one likes boring essays. You must constantly innovate and think of new, creative ways to add life to your writing. Whether you want to add humor, drama, or just pace your essay - the use of the proper devices can do this for you.
10 Types of Literary Devices You Can Use in Your Essay
There is a laundry list of literary devices but let’s look at the best literary devices ones you should know about:
One of the most common literary devices, metaphors, is used across essays, books, songs, poems, and speeches. They are used to compare two completely unrelated objects. The idea is to provide a more robust description such that the reader interprets it better.
E.g., All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.
Here, Shakespeare is comparing the world to the stage and implying that we are all actors enacting different scenes.
The problem with metaphors is that there are so many of them doing the rounds that using the common ones, such as “It is raining cats and dogs” or “Life is a rollercoaster,” among many others, don’t have the impact they should.
Hence, before inserting a metaphor, ensure it’s unique and not overused for it to be truly effective.
Similes and metaphors are not the same. Even though similes compare two different objects, they use the words ‘as’ or ‘like’, making explicit comparisons, unlike metaphors.
Using similes makes writing more interesting and descriptive. Coming up with new similes gets you to push your creative boundaries.
E.g., Fit as a fiddle, Brave as a lion, Slept like a log, etc.
As the name suggests, symbolism is when you give a different meaning to an object/subject/action to represent a more extensive concept for readers to understand it at a deeper level. Unlike metaphors and similes, symbolism is a more subtle form of comparison.
Using symbolism is almost like making your writing poetic. Instead of explicitly stating the obvious, you can use symbolism to let readers interpret it and think deeper.
E.g., The works of women are symbolic.
We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
To put on when you're weary.
These lines are from Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Aurora Leigh, wherein she compares women to ‘slippers’ that one only turns to when tired, implying how undervalued women are.
Alliteration means “letter of the alphabet” and refers to using words that begin with the letters of the same sound group in quick succession. They also refer to using words that start with the same letter.
Alliterations are generally used to draw attention and make something pleasurable to read. You can also use alliteration to name a character or place.
E.g., Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers.
They all begin with the letter ‘p.’
Sally ate salmon on Sunday.
Even though ‘Sally,’ ‘salmon,’ and ‘Sunday’ begin with ‘s,’ this is not considered an alliteration because none of the words have a similar sound.
“Oh, the irony!” - you must have encountered this phase several times. So, what does irony mean? It is used to highlight situations wherein something is very different from what it seems to be. Irony can be used to inject humor or to add a profound meaning.
Broadly, ironies are divided into - verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.
Verbal irony is when the speaker says something that is the opposite of what he/she actually means. “Isn’t that sarcasm?” many might wonder.
Video by Christopher Warner explaining the difference between the two
Situational irony is when the outcome of a situation is very different from what was expected. Dramatic irony is when the character’s understanding of a situation is different from the audience’s.
E.g. Brutus says he is ambitious, And Brutus is an honorable man.
These lines are said by Mark Antony in Julius Caesar wherein he seems to be praising Brutus but actually isn’t.
Think exaggeration. Yes, that is what hyperboles are.
Hyperboles are when you use words or phrases to make something grander or give it a larger-than-life effect. Sometimes exaggerating or using hyperbole is an effective way to convey the message powerfully or lay emphasis on a particular situation. They are purely used for effect and are not meant to be taken literally.
E.g. I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot and could have hung my hat on my eyes, and they stuck out so far.
These lines are from Mark Twain’s Old Times on the Mississippi. The hyperbole here is “hung my hat on my eyes. They stuck out so far”. The writer only uses this sentence to emphasize how helpless he was - in reality, his eyes were not sticking out.
Personification is when you give human characteristics and feelings to inanimate objects, animals, or nature. It gives your writing a dramatic effect and lets your readers relate more easily to the situation or object. Personification is also a powerful storytelling tool to create vivid imagery in the minds of readers.
E.g., Her heart was divided between concern for her sister and resentment against all the others.
Here Jane Austen writes about how the character’s (Elizabeth) ‘heart’ was divided between concern and resentment. It is a way of signifying how Elizabeth herself was torn between these two emotions.
An oxymoron refers to a pair of words that are contradictory or opposing. It is used to focus on the multiple meanings an object might have. It makes descriptions more effective while making the reader understand the intensity of the situation or character.
E.g., All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
George Orwell writes this line in Animal Farm to explain the prevalent hypocrisies. The fact that “some animals are more equal than others” negates the former part of the sentence, thereby demonstrating a paradoxical situation.
Words and phrases used to create a graphic, mental images are referred to as imagery in the readers' minds. You can use imagery to describe a character, weather, place, event, or emotion.
It is not just limited to the visual senses but also includes any description that appeals to all the other senses, like taste, smell, touch, and hearing.
E.g., Mr. Jaggers's room was lighted by a skylight only and was a most dismal place; the skylight, eccentrically patched like a broken head . . . there were some odd objects that I should not have expected to see--such as an old rusty pistol, a sword in a scabbard, several strange-looking boxes and packages, and two dreadful casts on a shelf, of faces peculiarly swollen, and twitchy about the nose.
This is an excerpt from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations wherein Pip is describing Mr. Jaggers’ room and reading this. We can almost visualize and get a sense of what it would look like.
Now, here’s an interesting one - onomatopoeia refers to sound words that are spelled the way their sounds sound. They let the reader hear the sound being written about, engrossing them in the situation or world created in the writing. It’s a simple yet powerful way to emphasize a sound.
Eg.: Hark, hark!
The watch-dogs bark!
Hark, hark! I hear.
These lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest use onomatopoeia to emphasize on the dogs barking, making us visualize sounds.
Please don’t get overwhelmed by the number of literary devices and be pressured to memorize them or even use all of them in your college essays, for that matter.
While there is no rule for the number of literary devices you can use, what’s important is to maintain a healthy balance and use this tool sparingly. It would be best to use literary devices that can genuinely add value, enhance your description and engage readers.
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Last edit at Jul 27 2023