Composition students at Colorado State University generated responses to the question, "What characterizes good writing?" The following information presents their responses and incorporates some of their language.
This has to do with not getting off the subject, not bringing in material that is irrelevant. You might think of this in terms of focusing a camera: you want to get a picture of something in particular, with perhaps a little background or context, and you want the details to be sharp. Problems with focus often originate in the planning stage of writing, so if you have trouble with this you might try outlining or taking notes to clarify for yourself what you should include.
A whole piece of writing should hang together, or, as one student put it, make sense. We sometimes describe the speech of someone who is excited or crazy as "babbling incoherently." What they're saying probably makes sense to them, but it isn't coherent for the listener because they're not being told the whole thing in a reasonable order and with all the pieces of information they need. This is a common difficulty for writers. Having someone else who can be objective read your writing, or getting some distance from it yourself, may help. Other kinds of coherence problems usually have to do with focus or organization, or both. Coherence problems can sometimes stem from mechanics as well: for instance, when the writing isn't consistently in the same tense, or changes from singular to plural, it is grammatically incoherent.
In a way, every aspect of writing has to do with audience because you're trying to communicate something to someone else, and how good your writing is has to do with how well you accomplish that. Of course, different kinds of audiences exist, and they need and are interested in different things. You would describe yourself differently, for instance, in a letter to a pen-pal in a foreign country, in a job application, and in a classified personal ad in the newspaper. Audience also has to do with the vocabulary you use, whether you're writing for lay people or experts, what assumptions you share with your readers, and what tone you use.
In high school classes, development is often taught in terms of answering Wh- questions. This is a way of making sure you've explained yourself. College level assignments usually call for telling why and how. This is also often described as using support, providing examples, giving evidence, backing up your opinions, including specifics, etc. Having to develop your ideas (or, in the case of summary, someone else's) ensures that you think them through and shows the reader you've done so. This is also the basis for persuasion.
Style has to do with how a piece of writing sounds. Everyone has a style which develops along with their writing; groups of people also have styles common to the group. For instance, if you read all the articles in Time magazine, the style is similar even though the authors are different. (This also has to do with audience, not to mention editorial policy.) Different subject areas require different styles. As for mechanics: Grammar, punctuation, spelling, and so forth certainly matter, particularly in terms of seeming credible to your audience (What would you think if you found repeated misspellings in your textbooks, for instance?). Style and mechanics are things to focus on only if you've already adjusted the content of your paper to your satisfaction.
If you've ever cooked using a recipe, you know that the best recipes tell you what you need to do before you start cooking. So when you're baking cookies, the first line of the recipe should read: "Preheat oven to 375 degrees" instead of telling you after you've finished making the dough that you need to cook it in an oven at that temperature. Similarly, the ideas in a piece of writing should follow one another in a logical sequence so that the reader knows how to make sense of what comes next. Sometimes they may even be able to predict what comes next. Or, they may be led to wonder about something just in time to have it explained to them. This is structural organization.
Organization also happens on the sentence level in the form of transitions. Transitions help the reader see the structural organization by using words and phrases to make connections between ideas. Other tips for organization: Have one main idea in each paragraph, and make sure that everything in that paragraph (that is, the development) has to do with that main idea. When you start on a new idea, let the reader know by starting a new paragraph. Make sure that each of these main ideas has to do with the thesis or topic of the essay as a whole.
Organization can be the hardest part of writing because in our minds, ideas are interconnected in a kind of three-dimensional Web, but in writing, they have to come one after the other. Outlining can help. You can also try writing down each main idea on an index card and shuffling them around into different patterns until you find one that works. Or you can use a word-processor to do the same thing with chunks of text.
This has to do with how effective your paper is. Naturally, this depends on what you set out to do. Different kinds of writing may try to persuade, amuse, inform, entertain, alarm, or inflame the reader. Purpose is one of the most important aspects of writing because different goals are accomplished in different ways. This is why there can be guidelines for good writing, but no rules. When you're wondering whether it's "Ok" to do something in an essay, ask yourself whether or not it helps you to accomplish your purpose. Organization, Style and Mechanics, Focus, Coherence, Audience, and Development are all functions of Purpose: that is to say, they are important for a reason. When you are given a writing assignment in a class, you are basically being given a purpose or the parameters of a purpose, e.g. write an arguing essay. Therefore, it is very important that you understand the assignment.
The first priority is Purpose because it's the driving force behind the others. Focus and Development are next because Focus has to do with choosing and staying on a subject and Development has to do with saying something meaningful about it. Organization and Coherence come next, because they help make that meaning more accessible to the reader. A sense of Audience, in the particular sense, helps fine-tune this some more. And finally, Style and Mechanics are the forms that put a polish on the content. While each of these qualities are defined independently here, it is important to remember that they are actually so interrelated as to be inseparable. A weakness in any one makes it hard to get all the others correct.
In this section, we present useful exercises, handouts, and sample paragraphs, including commentary on how they might be integrated into a curriculum and/or executed with optimal effect.
The exercises and activities we present here are useful for introducing rhetorical terminology to your students. Then, once student writers are familiar with the terminology, you can ask them to evaluate other sample writing using the terms. For instance, once students have learned to identify focus, you can examine focus in paragraphs depicting strong and weak coherence. However, you may want to carefully monitor how well the class understands the terms, so you don't overwhelm or confuse them.
The following paragraphs represent weak and strong examples of focus. You can implement them by having your students read them and asking them which they like better and why.
Weak Example: When I first brought my cat home from the humane society she was a mangy, pitiful animal. It cost a lot to adopt her: forty dollars. And then I had to buy litter, a litterbox, food, and dishes for her to eat out of. Two days after she came home with me she got taken to the pound by the animal warden. There's a leash law for cats in Fort Collins. If they're not in your yard they have to be on a leash. Anyway, my cat is my best friend. I'm glad I got her. She sleeps under the covers with me when it's cold. Sometimes she meows a lot in the middle of the night and wakes me up, though.
Strong Example:When I first brought my cat home from the Humane Society she was a mangy, pitiful animal. She was so thin that you could count her vertebrae just by looking at her. Apparently she was declawed by her previous owners, then abandoned or lost. Since she couldn't hunt, she nearly starved. Not only that, but she had an abscess on one hip. The vets at the Humane Society had drained it, but it was still scabby and without fur. She had a terrible cold, too. She was sneezing and sniffling and her meow was just a hoarse squeak. And she'd lost half her tail somewhere. Instead of tapering gracefully, it had a bony knob at the end.
This handout illustrates the importance of establishing a focus in topic sentences and thesis statements. You can also use it as an overhead.
Unfocused: Too many people treat animals badly in experiments.
Focused: The cosmetic industry often harms animals in unnecessary experiments designed to test their products.
Unfocused: Grades are an unfair pain in the neck.
Focused: Course grades based solely on one term paper don't accurately measure a student's knowledge on a subject.
Unfocused: Getting the right job is important and can lead to rewarding experiences.
Focused: Getting the right job can lead to an improved sense of self-esteem.
Unfocused: The Fourth of July picnic was a big success.
Focused: Everyone at the Fourth of July picnic ate well, enjoyed the swimming pool, and had a chance to chat with old friends.
The following paragraphs represent a weak example of development and three revised paragraphs. These are also informative as overheads or useful for small group work.
Weak Example: It was the worst movie I've seen in a long time. It was really boring. The characters were undeveloped and the plot was one cliche after another. I should have just stayed home. I'm sorry I wasted six dollars on such a stupid film.
Strong Example This movie is to cinema what Boone's Farm is to wine. It was about as action-packed as a tortoise clipping his toenails. The characters were more like caricatures and a four-year-old could have predicted the ending. Next time I'll give my six bucks to charity.
Strong Example: I was disappointed by the movie. The soundtrack was tinny and flat, and when there was supposed to be silence you could hear popping sounds and white noise instead. There were little starts and skips in the film where the cuts had been badly pasted together. The picture itself was grainy and the colors were faded, as though you were seeing them through gray-tinted lenses. It didn't help that the springs had gone in my theater seat and one of them was poking into my leg the whole time.
Strong Example: This movie is an insult to the intelligence of the audience. We are supposed to accept one improbability after another: that the hero, a private detective, is willing to take on the case out of the goodness of his heart; that the police are willing to freely share with him information on a case still under investigation; that the villain just happens to be the man who killed his parents when he was a boy. And of course the key witness turns out to be a leggy, rich, and unattached blonde who is wildly attracted to the detective.
The following paragraphs represent weak and strong examples of coherence. You can implement them by having your students read them and asking them which they like better and why.
Weak Example: For me, the worst thing about waiting tables is the uniform. All the waitresses had to wear this ugly brown striped jumper. The shirts were polyester. Sometimes someone you know comes in. Now I have a job in an office.
Strong Example: For me, the worst thing about waiting tables was the uniform. At the last place I worked, all the waitresses had to wear an ugly brown striped jumper. Underneath it we had to wear an even uglier polyester shirt. Sometimes someone I knew would come in and I'd feel embarrassed by my outfit. Now I have a job in an office, where I can wear my own clothes.
This exercise, especially useful for an Arguing paper, requires you to make large posters, depicting the Example Organization List below. Then, have your students hold the posters while the others tell them where to stand. For example, "Jeff, you go to the right of Gina." Students think this is dorky, but it works.
First, ask students to order only #1 through #7. Encourage them to explain their reasoning, as well as to consider alternatives. It's important here to point out that some of these items may not be essential. For instance, a paper might not have an essay map, or #6 and #7 might be the same thing.
Next, take out #5, #6, And #7 and add #8 through #10 to illustrate the importance of organizing to highlight strengths and minimize weaknesses.
Third, take those three out and put in #11 through #16, and students begin to see that they can break their argument into a point-by-point format. A similar strategy works well with organization on a paragraph label. You can literally cut up a piece of writing and have students put it back together. This works with weak as well as strong samples. Students see that weak writing lacks clear metadiscursive cues and a logical, chronological, or hierarchical sequence of ideas. Typically, visual exercises work best for teaching organization.
Example Organization List
Writing guides are available to help your students with Rhetorical Terminology. Choose any item below for more information: