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First published May 25, 2001

 “Use five elements of writing to evaluate your effectiveness ”

by Stephen Wilbers

 

When I was an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University, I thought I was a pretty good writer – until I turned in my first paper and it came back with red marks all over it.

 

Well, I thought, maybe I don’t know everything, but I’ll study these errors and I won’t make them again.

 

So I turned in my second paper, feeling quite confident, and it came back the same way, covered with red marks. So I studied those errors and turned in my third paper. Same results.

 

It was an unsettling experience. Where am I in this process? I wondered. Is the list of possible errors infinite? And then I asked that most unfair of all questions: Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?

 

Well, I was told, by many capable teachers throughout both my elementary and secondary education. But like many young people with other things on their minds, I wasn’t paying attention.

 

If you were like me as a kid and now you’re wondering what you missed as you gazed out the window or daydreamed about some weekend fun, here’s what your teachers were saying: There are five elements of effective writing, and nearly anything you do well – or poorly – as a writer can be addressed under one of these categories.

 

1. Purpose

 

Your thesis or central argument is the theme around which you organize your material. For most on-the-job writing, your purpose should be stated clearly and directly in your opening sentences. All of your main points, as well as your subordinate or secondary ideas, should be linked clearly to this statement. If you leave your reader wondering, “Well, that’s interesting, but how does it relate to the question at hand?” you have failed to make the connection.

 

Because subject lines are your first opportunity to state your purpose, take special care in wording them.

 

2. Organization

 

As Strunk and White advise in The Elements of Style, use the paragraph as your basic unit of composition. Each unit should have a single main purpose, and all material should be presented in relation to that purpose. Use transitional expressions such as “Despite these problems” or “For these reasons” to make connections between those units.

 

As a final check on your organization, read the first sentences (or topic sentences) of your paragraphs to check for omission, needless repetition, breaks in chronology, and problems in logical development.

 

3. Support

 

A common error among students to make an assertion without supporting it. Your readers want to know not only what you think but why you think it, as well as why they should believe you.

 

Offer explanations, examples, illustrations, statistics, or quotations to explain your thinking and substantiate your argument. The more specific, detailed, and relevant your evidence, the better.

 

4. Expression

 

Your expression or word choice indicates your point of view, both toward your material and your reader. The key here is to be appropriate. Use language that is neither too formal nor too colloquial for the situation and context. Choose your words carefully. Pay attention both to their denotation and to their connotation.

 

In technical writing, jargon is not only unavoidable but useful, as long it meets two conditions: It has genuine meaning, and the reader understands it.

 

5. Correctness

 

Here’s the kicker. The first four categories count in your favor, but this one only counts against you. You earn no points for correct spelling, subject-verb agreement, or comma placement. You can do everything else right, but make a single serious error and you lose credibility.

 

It ain’t fair, but that’s the way it is.

 

 

 


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