Effective Writing

Effective writing is precise. The meaning and intent are clear. The main idea is well-developed. It shows readers how you think and what you understand. I created Dr. John's Eazy-Peazy Resource: Effective Writing to provide insight into effective writing.

Overview

Effective writing is a language-based interaction between writer, reader, and text that promotes a sense of "reality," believableness, or involvement. According to Aldous Huxley, "Words are like X-rays, if you use them properly they'll go through anything. Read them and you're pierced." That's effective writing.

Richard Brautigan said effective writing is the use of language, imagination, and experience to communicate something for pleasure or information. Effective writing presents a precise statement or definition of meaning or intent. It is an explication or elucidation. An introduction of main characters or elements. A public showing of artistic intent or undertakings. Effective writing combines reasoning, analytical, and language skills to show your readers how you think and what you understand, as well as how you intend to solve problems and overcome obstacles.

In return, effective writing helps you synthesize ideas. It is a way of exploring the texture of life. A way of communicating an idea or position. A source of knowledge, opportunity, and power.

Three paths to effective writing

Wisdom

is largely mental—a study of effective writing, analysis, dissection of what makes it so.

Love

is where we absorb the concepts of effective writing through devotion, by osmosis from watching and reading other accomplished writers.

Immersion

is balance. Over emphasizing either Wisdom or Love, or putting both together, leads to paralysis—writer's block. Only when you allow yourself Immersion in the idea that you can write do you become aware of your ability to do so.

Adapted from The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life by Steven Pressfield. New York: Avon, 1995. 73-74.

Three parts of effective writing

Perception

Effective writing is essentially good thinking and good thinking derives from the ability to perceive critically, to discriminate between important details and unimportant details, to be sensitive to subtleties, to recognize relationships. Perception, seeing the truth of a subject, is the beginning of almost every writing project.

We perceive through our senses. Because we learn about the world through sight and sound, to make our writing effective we must use language that communicates directly as possible to the eye and ear. The more sensory details, the more likely readers are to get involved, intellectually, emotionally and even physically.

Sensory detail adds a human element to your writing. A human element makes your writing interesting, even vital to your readers, who are, after all, human.

To use sensory experience as part of your writing you must first train yourself to perceive more clearly and fully. As adults we lose the ability to be dazzled by our senses. We become dulled to what our senses are telling us about our surrounding world. With effort and practice you can bring your senses back to life, become more conscious of the world around you, begin to see more clearly.

When you begin to perceive more clearly you will begin to write more effectively.

Language

Perception is best when it is in the form of specific, concrete, particular details that SHOW your readers what you are thinking about. Concrete, specific language stimulates sensory pictures in your readers' minds.

Concrete, specific words name things or describe sensory details, objects, emotions, and facts in such a way that readers can actually experience with their own imagination the thing you are writing about.

Concrete, specific words suggest or name something we can see, feel, touch, smell, taste. Trout, French bread, daffodils, and silk.

General, abstract words identify classes, qualities, groupings, or ideas like fish, nutrition, vegetation, and clothing.

Using general, abstract words and phrases (generalization) in your writing is lazy. By using generalizations you fail to allow yourself to stretch your senses, your perception. You fail to look for the real and immediate level of experience in whatever you are writing about, and of course, you fail to share anything of significance for your readers.

Using concrete, specific words, especially sensory words that SHOW something to your readers eye and ear, creates images, a sensory picture in the mind. Your reader can see what you are writing about. For example, consider the difference between the images presented by the language in these two sentences . . .
Twenty people came into my shop. versus
Twenty Hells Angels came into my shop.

Good writing attempts to SHOW the reader what the writer is thinking about, rather than telling.
Telling is vague ---> I hurt my finger.
SHOWING is specific ---> I poked a needle through my finger.

Telling communicates an idea or concept ---> Downtown traffic was heavy.
SHOWING demonstrates an idea or concept ---> City buses coughed black smoke; taxis honked at a stalled delivery truck. Even a policeman on a motorcycle couldn't squeeze through the rumble of cars.

Honesty

Don't fall for the trap of thinking that you have to write about how you think you are supposed to feel. Have the courage, and be honest enough, to write about what you really feel. See what is actually there, not what you think you are supposed to see. Be honest with your experience. Ask yourself questions.

  • "Is my experience real or am I feeling what I think I am supposed to feel?"
  • "Am I hearing or seeing this in a new way or am I hearing or seeing it as I have always heard it before?"

Qualities of effective writing

Makes your position clear

Your task as a writer is to make your position clear through the precise statement of your dominant idea, clear examples that make the basis of your idea plain, arrangement of your points so that they lead your reader along the path of your thoughts without confusion, and effective language that holds your reader's attention (Kahn 37).

Springs from a reason to write

Your best writing begins with your response. Writing also helps you discover what you think. No writer writes without a reason to write, a pressing need to confront a problem or express an idea or feeling through the distance that language creates. Writers often write because they want to find out just what it is they think and feel about a subject that is important to them. Most writers expect and hope to be surprised by their words as they appear on the page (Kahn 41).

Serves the interests of the reader

People read . . . for a purpose that has to do with issues that are important to them as individuals or as members of a larger community. Reading is inevitably linked to learning about self and one's relation to one's inner world, outer world, or both. Because readers read for their own purposes, to write effectively, you have to write with some knowledge of your readers—your audience—and their purpose for reading what you have to tell them. If you want your writing to be effective, you must connect your subject and your dominant idea with the concerns of your audience so that they may learn about their worlds and your world through what you have to say (Kahn 42-43).

Does justice to the dominant idea

When you write effectively, you do justice to your dominant idea by thinking about it in terms of your readers and the knowledge you assume they have or need to have to understand your point. You do justice to your dominant idea by providing your audience with enough information to allow its members to understand what you have to say. You also do justice to your dominant idea by recognizing what your audience probably already knows and does not need to be reminded of (Kahn 43).

Is appropriate to the situation and audience

As they write, writers define for themselves as best they can the interests, attitudes, assumptions, and experiences of their audience. They then adjust the organization of their ideas, the examples they choose to make their ideas clear, and their language to make their writing appropriate to their audience. Effective writing, then, is a complex, continuously changing, challenging balance of audience, ideas and responses, and language. To create an effective balance, you must think consciously about the choices you make. Do your words represent you and your subject in the most effective way? Is the voice you have created appropriate to the situation and your subject as well as how you want your readers to feel about them? Have you chosen appropriate examples, neither talking down to your reader no assuming too much about him or her? Have you made it clear to your reader why what you have to say is important and deserves attention? (Kahn 43-44)

Exhibits these components

Introduction
The introduction is where you present the topic you are writing about and a clear statement of what you want to say about this topic. It is also the place where you present your thesis.

The thesis is the nail that effective writing hangs upon. Make sure you have a clearly stated thesis and that all the supporting details in your writing relate to, support, and develop your thesis. It's important to note that there is a big difference between a thesis and a main point. A main point is a statement of fact, not a matter of the writer's opinion (informed or otherwise). A thesis is a statement offered by the writer as true or correct, but actually it is a matter of the writer's opinion.

Example . . .
The Rocky Mountains have three important geological features: abundant water, gold- and silver-bearing ore, and oil-bearing shale.

This is a main point. The writer makes a statement of fact (one that is easily verified), does not include her opinion, nor try to change the reader's.

The Rocky Mountains are the most important source of geological wealth in the U. S. A.

This is also a statement of fact (one that can also be easily verified) but it also includes a statement of the author's opinion. What about Alaska or Florida? Are they not or could they not be more important sources of geological wealth? Such a thesis statement, with its inclusion of the author's opinion (informed or otherwise) signals to readers that the author will try to sway their point of view. The effectiveness of your writing will depend on how well you can marshall facts and details to support your thesis and change your reader's point of view.

Body
The body is where you develop your thesis by presenting evidence or information gleaned from your research. This evidence or information should be compelling in that it supports your opinion in your thesis and in that it changes your readers' point of view (convinces them that you are correct in your opinion). The evidence or information that you include in the body of your essay are called "supporting ideas" in that they support your opinion in your thesis, and show your readers' that you are knowledgeable about your topic, and that you know the difference between objectivity and subjectivity.

Objectivity versus Subjectivity
Subjectivity places your opinion or inference, which may not be correct, as the central fact in the writing. Subjective statements may also be based on facts that have not been verified correctly or completely. They are easy to grasp and use as bold, declarative statements. But, subjective statements are dangerous because can mistakenly carry the emotional weight of a conclusion. Examples: Abortion is murder. Or, The teacher was unhappy when the class bell drowned out his discussion.

Objectivity is a way of looking at your subject with the smallest amount of personal, emotional intrusion as possible. Objectivity comes from numerous observations over time and from different perspectives, from looking for aspects of your subject like change, contrast, consequence,and characterization. Examples: Abortion is the removal of a fetus from a woman's womb. Or, I surveyed one hundered seventeen teachers. Forty-seven indicated they were frustrated when the class bell sounded before they had finished their lesson discussion.

Conclusion
The conclusion can do several things depending on your purpose for writing.

  • Summarize the main points you covered
  • Encourage your readers' to change their point of view or actions
  • Point your readers' to larger issues that might relate to your thesis
  • Rephrase your thesis in light of your discussion
  • Provide resolution or closure to your development of supporting details in the body of your writing
  • Provide your readers' with a sense of ending to the discussion (Truscott)

Combines these qualities

Effective writing is a sort of ecology. Every part depends on every other part, and a problem in any one element has consequences for every other element. If you do not think about your reader, you cannot fulfill the purpose of your writing—to clearly express your sense of your particular situation to another person. If you do not think about the situation that surrounds your writing, you can't think clearly about your reader and how to address him or her. Also, without a clear sense of how to do justice to your subject and your dominant idea through your language, you cannot effectively fulfill your purpose as a writer. Finally, the voice you choose to express your ideas—your choice of words, the length and rhythm of your sentences, whether or not you use figurative language and words that appeal to your reader's emotions—both reflects and helps you refine your sense of your situation, your purpose, and your audience (Kahn 45).

An example of very effective writing

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail is at the top of my list as an example of VERY effective writing.

King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 12 April 1963 for disobeying a court injunction forbidding demonstrations. The same day, eight leading white Birmingham clergymen published a letter in the city newspaper calling for an end to the civil rights protests and urging black citizens to address their concerns instead through the courts and local government. King began his response to these clergymen, his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that day and finished it the following Tuesday. It was published in newspapers around the world.

King's writing is as effective today as when it was first published. Read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail as a PDF file.

Works cited

Kann, David. The Literate Writer. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1995.

Truscott, Robert. The Essentials of College ∓ University Writing. Piscataway, NJ: Research and Education Association, 1995. 34-36.

Dr. John

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