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.
thought, maybe I don’t know everything, but I’ll study these errors and I
won’t make them again.
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?
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.
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.
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.
subject lines are your first opportunity to state your purpose, take
special care in wording them.
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.
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.
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.
explanations, examples, illustrations, statistics, or quotations to
explain your thinking and substantiate your argument. The more specific,
detailed, and relevant your evidence, the better.
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.
technical writing, jargon is not only unavoidable but useful, as long it
meets two conditions: It has genuine meaning, and the reader understands
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.
fair, but that’s the way it is.