Most writers know the five main types of writing: expository, descriptive, narrative, persuasive and creative. We know them abstractly, and many of us engage in more than one of the five.

All of these types of writing have ethical norms. Let’s start with expository writing. By focusing on just one, we might scrape away enough method and purpose to see the ethics of the thing.

Expository writing informs, explains, and defines content. Some writers are so good at it they never advance to the other four. That’s why I picked it, hoping the ethics of exposition would be discernible even at the surface level. Other writers acquire the basic skills of expository writing and move up the writing food chain to take on, say, descriptive writing.

Descriptive writing describes places, people, and things in ways that generate pictures in readers’ heads and sometimes even in their minds. Capturing an event through descriptive writing involves paying close attention to small details and using all five. Some writers bog at this point and spend the rest of their lives in the expository writing world.

Narrative writing is a two-buck word for a dime’s worth of writing. It’s story writing. All stories need exposition and description, but they thrive on characters, conflict, and tension. It differs greatly from less intense writing, like textbooks and research papers.

Persuasive writing is that giant leap upward. It’s not just up the food chain, it vaults the writer so far from Kansas they forget how flat and dreary it was. Persuasive writing is a written form of an oral debate and can be a fun and interesting style of writing for students. We use it to convince readers, not just inform, describe or even entice them. It requires new skills, diction, framing, cohesion, and closing.

The fifth type, creative writing, is the north star of writing. It leaps off your page straight into the reader’s imagination, bleeding heart, suffering soul, or tortured mind. It is boundless, ignoring the strictures of day-to-day professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature. However, it succeeds or fails depending on how well the writer has mastered the other four types of writing. To succeed, it needs not just settings, but descriptive ones that allow the reader to see off the page. It needs more than characters; it needs developed characters who breathe, ache, and leap over tall buildings. It is as tight as it is loose and runs with scissors, in the dark, on one shoe, with something dreadful in its hands, or loving everything it touches.

Think of the writing food chain as five very different species. Expository writing is a fish in a bowl. Descriptive writing is an antelope jumping fences and climbing low hills. Narrative writing is the call of many birds, all at once, some singing, some screeching, and eagles soaring. Persuasive writing is a grizzly bear, thundering on all fours, bounding right at you with jaws gaping and sounding like a freight train screeching off the track into a used car lot. Creative writing is that giant, eight-armed octopus no one has ever seen, laying below 10,000 feet in a black-as-night ocean, but every creative writer can imagine, define, describe, and persuade you is real. The creative writer does it by the creature’s image in your head no matter how hard you resist seeing it.

Each type of writing has ethnical norms that cascade up, ever higher, from good manners to good fellowship, to honest and fair dealing, and finally to explicit ethical bounds between writer and reader.

All five types are predicated on the basic construct between writer and reader. I do not agree with Milan Kundera, [1]who said a novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality. Nor do I agree with Oscar Wilde,[2] who poo-pooed the very notion, saying there’s no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

I agree with the large segment of writers that we are bound by ethics as writers. We enter into a construct with readers when we write to and for them. “Ethical writing is the writing we do when we have consciously reflected on the meanings we are making, or the world we are representing. I may not like a work, and I may not agree with its worldview, but if it was written under the conditions of reflective practice, it is necessarily ethical.”[3]

There is no easy answer, no bright line, or handed-down-from-on-high ethical construct defining what we owe our readers from an ethical perspective. That said, as an ethicist who writes, I owe my readers authenticity and truth. Not authentic as in real, but authentic as in “could have been real,” except for science fiction. And not truthful as in actually happened, but truthful as in original. This is my original work. I created it. I hope you like it. Buy the sequel.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[1] “Milan Kundera was a perpetual contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, having been nominated several times.”

[2] “Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, the early 1890s saw him become one of the most popular playwrights in London. He is best remembered for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the circumstances of his criminal conviction for gross indecency, imprisonment, and early death at age 46.”