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What is Good Writing?
Transcript of What is Good Writing?
Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets,
cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and
are not fun at all.
Toilets! When you’re scrubbing toilets make sure they are not
stinky. I’ve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didn’t stink. I
think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the
bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom
because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one
before and it was pretty easy.
Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and
it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I
think, to wash in the bathroom.
All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my
room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting
is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so
many things to dust, and it’s no fun.
Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best!
Ideas that are interesting and important.
Ideas are the heart
of your piece — what you’re writing about and the information you
choose to write about it.
Organization that is logical and effective.
Organization refers to the order of your ideas and the way you move from one idea to the next.
Voice that is individual and appropriate.
Voice is how your writing feels to someone when they read it. Is it formal or casual? Is it
friendly and inviting or reserved and standoffish? Voice is the expression
of your individual personality through words
Word Choice that is specific and memorable
. Good writing uses just the right words to say just the right things.
What is Good Writing?
You know it when you see it. It isn’t that hard to tell whether a piece of writing is good or bad. You just have to read it. But things get more challenging if you have to explain why. Even harder than that is analyzing the good things a writer is doing so you can learn to use his or her techniques in your own work. Having simple phrases to describe the good things writers do makes learning about those things easier. Good writing has:
What is Good Writing?
Sentence Fluency that is smooth and expressive.
Fluent sentences are easy to understand and fun to read with expression.
Conventions that are correct and communicative. Conventions
are the ways we all agree to use punctuation, spelling, grammar,
and other things that make writing consistent and easy to read.
Interesting and Important
Ideas are what it’s all about. Ideas are really the most important part of a piece of writing.
After all, ideas are the reason writers write. If we didn’t have any ideas, we wouldn’t need any
words to express them. And if we didn’t need any words — well, you get the idea. Without ideas there wouldn’t be any writing. But how do you know if the ideas in a piece of writing are any good? What do you look for?
Imagine taking an entire piece and scrunching it down into a single sentence that still said more or less the same thing. That’s kind of what a main idea is. Most pieces, especially short ones like Chores, are built on a single thought. That thought is the main idea and everything else in the piece is there to help the audience understand it. So what’s the main idea in Chores?
There are three criteria every good main idea must meet:
The main idea has to be a complete sentence.
You couldn’t, for example, say that the main idea of Chores is “chores.” That’s the topic, not the main idea. You couldn’t even say that the main idea is “About chores” or “Doing chores” or “Why the writer hates chores.” All of these statements are related to the piece but they’re not complete thoughts, so they don’t qualify as the main idea.
The main idea has to be something that is important to the author.
If the main idea isn’t important to the author, then the author shouldn’t waste time writing the piece. We should always write about things that are important to us because that’s how we become better writers. In this case, I think the main idea is very important to this author. She clearly takes her chores seriously; she makes her points with strong statements that are packed with strong feelings.
The main idea has to be something that is important to the audience.
The entire piece is about the main idea. If the audience doesn’t care about it, they aren’t going to care about the piece. In Chores, the author is writing for other third graders in her class. Most of them have chores of their own to do and they don’t like them much either. So I think we could say that the main idea met this last criteria, too.
“Showing” Details that Provide Rich and Effective Description
My favorite part of this piece just happens to be an example of a “showing” detail: “Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down.” I love that because I can actually see it happening. She could have just told us about dusting by saying something like “Dusting is boring because you have to keep picking things up and putting them back down.” But instead of just telling us, she shows us what it’s like for her. Readers love “showing” details because they help them see pictures instead of just words. In general, the more “showing” you have, the better your piece will be.
A Clear and Meaningful Purpose
Whenever we look into the purpose of a piece of writing, we have to ask ourselves questions like “Why did the writer write this?” and “What does the writer want us to think about or do?” As with a main idea, different readers may come up with different purposes. But that’s OK as long as we can find tangible evidence in the piece that answers our questions clearly. I think the writer of Chores did a good job with purpose. It’s clear to me that she wrote this to tell us how boring chores are. And when we’re done reading, she wants us to think that while chores are certainly an unpleasant part of life, they’re really not all that bad.
Something Surprising or Unusual That Really Works
Sometimes writers surprise us by successfully introducing and developing a unique idea in a piece. While most of Chores seems like normal everyday stuff, the parts about cleaning the toilet and dusting caught my attention and made the piece seem more original to me. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about cleaning in exactly this way and I found it both surprising and entertaining.
Logical and Effective Organization
Ideas don’t make much sense if they aren’t arranged in some way. Something has to come first, something has to go last, and several things usually end up in the middle, one after another, in a logical sequence.
A Beginning That catches Your Attention and Makes You Want to Read More.
How do you catch a reader’s attention? What makes readers want to read more of something they just started? That probably differs from reader to reader and piece to piece. Some beginnings are clearly better than others. Common beginnings, the ones we hear all the time, or those that lack emotion, discourage readers from continuing. More original and unusual beginnings, especially those with strong feelings, make readers take notice and prepare them for the ideas to come.
How well does the beginning of Chores work?
An Ending That Feels Finished and Makes You Think
To make a piece feel truly finished, writers have to satisfy their readers and give them a little something to think about after they’ve read the last word. In Chores, even though the ending is only a single sentence in length, it seems basically satisfying, at least to me. The writer has chosen one big idea (“Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best.”) which expresses a broad opinion of the topic. But does it make us think about anything?
Parts are Arranged in the Best Order
Every piece can be separated into parts where each part contains a group of ideas that go together. The trick is to put the parts in the best order so the reader will be entertained and will easily be able to understand how each part relates to the next and how all parts relate to the piece as a whole. To figure this out, it’s helpful to name the different parts of a piece.
In Chores, we could name the parts like this: (1) Introduction, (2) Toilets, (3) Sinks, (4) Bathtubs, (5) Boring Chores, (6) Conclusion.
Spends the Right Amount of Time Spent on Each Part
How much time does it take to read each part? Do some parts take more or less time than others? Does the writer spend more time on more important parts and less time on less important parts? These are the questions we ask when we talk about the “pace” of a piece of writing. Pacing is the art of controlling how much time readers spend on each group of ideas. In general, the more important something is in a piece, the more time the writer should spend on it.
Easy to Follow From Part to Part
When we talk about how writers move from part to part in a piece, we usually talk about transitional phrases. These are single words or small groups of words like “First,” “Next,” “Then,” “Finally,” “After a while,” “Later that day,” and so on, that serve to introduce the next part in the sequence. But Chores doesn’t use any of these transitions. And yet it seems very easy to follow. How does the writer do it?
Individual and Appropriate Voice
Because each of us has a unique personality, each of us has a unique voice in writing, and that is what makes our writing unique. The trick is in letting that voice come through. And the only way that happens is if we make different choices in our writing than other writers make in theirs, choices that reflect who we are inside — our original thoughts and personal feelings, our particular way of seeing things and interpreting them — and writing it all down.
The Writer Cares About the Topic
The first choice every writer has to make is what he or she will write about. In order to write well, you have to care about your topic. If you’re not interested in it, your audience probably won’t be interested either. But how can you tell if a writer cares about the topic of a piece? It's not as if writers sign their pieces at the bottom: "I care. I really do. Sincerely, Your Author." This is one of those situations — a situation that often comes up when we look at voice — where we have to look between the lines and make educated guesses.
Strong Feelings, Honest Statements
Expressing our individual personalities has a lot to do with expressing our feelings. Think about it: if everyone felt the same way about everything, we’d all tend to do and say and think the same things; there wouldn’t be much difference between one person and another, and our writing wouldn’t be very different either. Our feelings about things are what tend to make us unique. So if we want our writing to be unique, we have to communicate strong feelings.
Individual, Authentic, and Original
When I read something by one of my favorite writers, I often have the feeling that no one else could have written it. In most good writing, the individuality of the writer comes through. When we sense this individuality, we’re picking up on the writer’s voice.
Another important quality to look for in a writer’s voice is
. Does the writing sound real? Does it sound as though it was written by a real person, or does it sound phony, stilted, awkward? Like honesty, authenticity can be hard to judge. For example, writers often experiment with styles that are not their own, and this can be very successful if it’s done well. Once again, I look for consistency. Does each part of the piece sound like it was written by the same person? And do you get a strong sense throughout the piece of who that person is?
Finally, we can judge a writer’s voice by how
the writing seems. To say that something is original is simply to say that we haven’t seen it before. Chores feels very original to me. I’ve never seen a piece on this topic that sounds quite the same. Of course, to someone who had read 20 other pieces just like it, it wouldn’t seem that way.
Displays a Definite and Well Developed Personality
Whenever I read something that has a lot of voice, I get the feeling that I’m getting to know the person who wrote it just as if we were hanging out as friends. That isn’t true, of course. I’m not getting to know the person, I’m getting to know the personality that person is presenting through his or her words.
Appropriate Tone for Purpose and Audience
If you wrote a letter to your grandma thanking her for a birthday present, you probably wouldn’t want to sound like an angry, frustrated person. If you wrote an article for your school paper about someone on your high school’s football team who had suffered a serious injury, you probably wouldn’t want to seem silly, as though you were making a joke out of it. If you wrote a research paper about global warming, you probably wouldn’t want to sound as casual as you do when you’re talking to your friends. The voice you choose for your writing must match the purpose you are writing for and the people you are writing to. I think the voice the writer uses in Chores matches the situation very well.
Specific and Memorable Word Choice
So many words, so little time.
If you’re writing in English, you get a bonus that can’t be found in most other languages: an extra 300,000 words or so. At just over 490,000 words (and still growing strong), the English language is the largest in the world. So, when it comes to deciding which word to use where, you’ve got plenty of choices.
Strong Verbs That Tell How Actions are Performed
Verbs are words that describe the action in a sentence. Some verbs are said to be stronger than others, and these are the ones that tend to make your writing more effective. Here’s how it works: take a verb like “run” and another verb with a similar meaning like “sprint.” Now, compare these two sentences: (1) “I was running.”; (2) “I was sprinting.” They seem more or less the same, but they’re not. In the first sentence, you learn that I was running, but in the second sentence you also learn how I was running. The word “sprint” means “to run at top speed for a brief moment.” So, when I say “sprinting,” I get all the meaning of the verb “run,” plus the additional meaning that explains how I was running as well. This is like getting an adverb for free (or in this case an entire adverbial phrase); the action and a description of the action are packed into one tiny word. That’s what makes it stronger: it’s a single word that contains the meaning of an entire group of words!
Words and Phrases Readers Remember Long After They’ve Finished Reading
One way you can tell that you’ve read a good piece of writing is when you remember some of the words long after you’ve finished it. After all, if writing is first and foremost the communication of ideas, it would be nice if people actually remembered a little of what you wrote. No one can remember all the words in a piece, but sometimes a few words here and there are so interesting or unusual we can’t forget them.
Words and Phrases Used Accurately and Effectively
Good word choice doesn’t mean using big, fancy, unusual words. It means using the right words to say the right thing in just the right way. Here’s an example I came across recently in the beginning of an essay about a jogging accident: “Having already stretched and run a fourth of my distance, I arrived at my favorite spot and halted.” At first glance, the word “halted” seems like a good choice. It’s a word we don’t use that often and it’s very specific, a good strong verb. But it may not be exactly the right word in this situation. To my ear (though you may disagree), the word “halted” suggests that he was caused to stop by someone or some thing. (I hear the old war movie phrase in my head: “Halt! Who goes there?”) But nothing caused him to stop; he just stopped all by himself. And that’s the word I think he should have used: “stopped.”
Language That is Appropriate to Purpose and Audience
Let me just say this right up front: there are many words you should probably never use in writing and you know what most of those words are. But there’s more to appropriateness than avoiding bad language. Your first and highest priority when considering word choice is to choose words that your audience will understand. I can show off and use a whole bunch of big words, or I can say the same thing as simply as possible, using little words that I know just about everyone can understand. Using big words may make me feel smart and superior, but it won’t help me be understood. And that’s the most important thing.
Smooth and Expressive Sentence Fluency
Sometimes ya just gotta go with the flow — at least that's the situation most readers find themselves in.
When we write, we write in sentences. Beginning with a capital letter, we wind our way over words and phrases until we’ve expressed a complete thought, and then we mark the endpoint with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.
Readers read the same way: they follow the shape of each sentence from beginning to end trying to understand the single complete thought the writer is expressing. In order for readers to do that, your writing needs to flow smoothly from word to word, phrase to phrase, and sentence to sentence. The term “sentence fluency” refers to the way individual words and phrases sound together within a sentence, and how groups of sentences sound when read one after the other.
Variety in Sentence Beginnings
We can’t start every sentence the same way. We can’t expect people to read our writing if we do. We can’t keep using the same words over and over at the beginning. We can’t do this because it drives readers crazy! It also makes the writing hard to understand. Why? Because readers start paying more attention to the repetition of the sounds than they do to the meaning of the words.
Variety in Sentence Length and Structure
Just as using sentences with different beginnings helps make your writing easier to read and understand, using sentences of different lengths and different structures helps, too.
Easy to Read Expressively; Sounds Great When Read Aloud
To understand and enjoy your writing, people need to read it expressively. Expressive reading involves reading a text with the appropriate changes in pitch, rhythm, volume, and tone that we hear in normal speech.
Rhythm, Rhyme, Alliteration, and Other “Sound” Effects
In certain situations, sequences of similar speech sounds sometimes surprise us. Depending on how you count them, the English language has 40+ sounds, and you can’t help noticing at times how writers put them together in interesting and unusual ways. In the first sentence of this paragraph, I’m using two techniques: (1)
This is when several words in a sentence begin with the same sound. (2)
. This involves using the same consonant sound in several words, often at the ends. Used sparingly, these kinds of “sound” effects make writing fun to read. But don’t overdo it — like I did in the first sentence. Sentences with similar sounding words can be hard to understand.
Sentences are Structured so They’re Easy to Understand
1. One of the interesting properties of sentences in most languages is that their parts can often be rearranged without their meaning being changed.
2. In most languages, one of the interesting properties of sentences is that they can often be rearranged without changing their meaning
3. Without changing their meaning, sentences, in most languages, can often be rearranged — an interesting property.
I’ve just said the same thing three times, three different ways; the only difference was the sentence structure. You can tell that the first and second sentences have a fairly simple structure. The third sentence is especially complicated and, therefore, harder to understand. It’s fine to have long, complex sentences. But they must be structured in ways that make them easy for the reader to deal with.
Correct Conventions That Communicate
“Conventions” is the term we use nowadays to describe punctuation, spelling, and grammar. (Some people even extend the term to handwriting and computer formatting, but we won’t be talking about those things here.) We used to call these things “mechanics” but I think “conventions” is a much better term because it more accurately describes what these things are — historical agreements — and how we go about using them. To me, writing correctly is hardly a “mechanical” process; it takes a lot of human thought and ingenuity to do it well.
Chores! Chores! Chores! Chores are boring! Scrubbing toilets, cleaning sinks, and washing bathtubs take up a lot of my time and are not fun at all.
Toilets! When you’re scrubbing toilets make sure they are not stinky. I’ve scrubbed one before and I was lucky it didn’t stink. I think toilets are one of the hardest things to scrub in the bathroom because it is hard to get up around the rim.
Sinks are one of the easiest things to clean in the bathroom because they have no rims and they are small. I have cleaned one before and it was pretty easy.
Bathtubs, ever washed one? They are big, they are deep, and it is hard to get up around the sides. The bathtub is the hardest, I think, to wash in the bathroom.
All chores are boring, especially making my bed. Cleaning my room is OK because I have to organize, and I like organizing. Dusting is the worst: dust, set down, pick up, dust, set down. There are so many things to dust, and it’s no fun.
Chores aren’t the worst but they’re definitely not the best!
Paragraphing That Group Related Ideas Together
A sentence is a single idea. A paragraph is a collection of one or more sentences that are closely related. Paragraphs are extremely useful to readers because they break the piece into small, manageable chunks, and because they highlight the organizational structure. Chores is a perfect example of this.
How Many Sentences are in a Paragraph?
Something I hear from time to time in school is that a paragraph is supposed to have a certain number of sentences. Some people say five, others say four, some say that you have to have at least three. This has even been printed in English books. It’s simply not true. A paragraph can contain one sentence or a hundred and one, though most have fewer than ten and more than two.
Think Tools, Not Rules
Some people, when they think about conventions, think about rules. But that’s not exactly right. Conventions are tools, not rules. They help us hammer out a precise idea, nail down a topic, and chisel away at ambiguity. If all this sounds a bit serious, don’t worry, conventions have a lighter side, too.
What is This Thing Called Conventions?
Writers use conventions to enhance and clarify the meaning of what they write. Conventions allow writers to specify the exact way a word or phrase should be interpreted by the reader, they help the reader understand exactly what the writer had in mind. When you can’t be there to read your writing to someone else, conventions can help do the reading for you. Whenever you write something, you hear it in your head first. You know exactly how it should sound, but the reader doesn’t. Conventions guide the reader through your writing by telling the reader when to stop, when to go, when to speed up, when to slow down, and so on. They make your writing sound just the way it sounded to you when you wrote it down.