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Teach the Elements of Writing

It's a misconception that writing teachers simply tell students to write and wait to see what happens. Teachers should provide instruction in and exposure to various elements of writing to help students understand what good writing is.


This article summarizes the most common traits of writing. It is worth noting that these traits overlap — that real writing seldom breaks into neat component parts. Students benefit from understanding these traits, from discussing successful and unsuccessful examples, and from looking at them in the work of peers and in professional mentor texts.


Perhaps the greatest gift of a writing workshop is that it gives writers an ad hoc audience for their work. Writers learn a tremendous amount about their own writing from hearing the responses of others. They are especially poised to learn from this feedback if they are explicitly taught ways to effectively use audience response. Student writers learn that audiences can have different needs and they learn about different perspectives on what they say. Students who have audience awareness find that it influences their planning, their drafting, their ways of revising, their editing, and their publishing.


Purpose may be the most intangible of all the traits of writing. When students are planning their writing they often consider purpose coupled with a consideration of audience. So they are thinking for whom am I writing this and why? While the first question may have a tangible answer (e.g., my teacher, other students, legislatures, a publisher), the second can be amorphous. It isn't enough for students to argue that their purpose is to fulfill a writing assignment. While that may well be the case, and that certainly is a purpose, it is not one that guides great writing. A well-articulated, authentic purpose helps guide a writer's choices.

For example a student may determine that he or she would like to write about an experience on a recent vacation. During planning and drafting, the decisions about what pieces of the vacation to reveal can be circumscribed by the reason for the selection, the purpose for writing. Is it to convince another student to vacation in this location? If so, one would include details about climate, activities, expense, and ease of access. Is the paper intended to tell a funny story that happened on the trip? If so, the details described above might be extraneous and the focus would be on that singular event. Is the purpose to argue for the importance of vacations in general? This would require a very different frame.

Student writing is often unfocused. That may mean that the purpose for writing is not entirely clear (at least to the reader). Instruction in the concept of purpose helps students focus their writing and select detail and rhetoric particular to that reason. To help students to learn about purpose, teachers often use the "so what" heuristic. When a purpose isn't entirely clear, you (or peers) may ask, as kindly as possible, "So what?" This phrase serves as a reminder for students that the purpose of the piece needs more clarity. As students develop in their awareness of purpose, this phrase becomes less and less common as a part of the feedback given on their writing.


When asked about the difference between a good student paper and a great one, an experienced standardized test rater told me: "Voice." Although students can be organized and coherent in their writing without voice, their writing will probably never shine. Understanding how voice is used can be a continual challenge for student and professional writers, but it is battle worth fighting.

You may already have some favorite ways to prompt students' awareness of voice. Any technique that elucidates the difference between texts that do and do not show voice can be effective. One of the most potent lessons on voice may be to ask students to tell a funny story into a tape recorder. Often this verbal example will have inflection, colorful language, and different paces — many of the elements that help distinguish a piece that has voice. It is often much more difficult for students to translate those elements into writing. Sometimes comparing a student's verbal stories with their written ones highlights this very issue.

One often uses voice to convey a purpose. Similarly, one's purpose can determine whether one writes in a more or less lighthearted voice. In How's It Done?: Mini-Lesson on Voice (see below), one teacher begins the discussion with students on writing with voice. A teacher may repeat mini-lessons such as these many times. It is not easy to teach students about the traits of writing, and just because a student successfully writes one piece doesn't mean traits will always come easily. Exposing and re-exposing students to the ideas of purpose, voice, and the like will help them approach all sorts of writing tasks with confidence, so teachers should think of this as ongoing instruction.

Word choice

The more elements of writing you discuss with students, the more their interrelatedness becomes clear. It is difficult to talk about word choice without touching upon audience awareness, voice, and purpose. Nonetheless, it is important for students to think carefully about how to chose potent and relevant words for the meaning they wish to convey. Students with larger vocabularies are at a great advantage. Shades of meaning can be easily revealed with more precise vocabulary. Vocabularies grow when students read and when they are given explicit instruction in word parts like roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Thus vocabulary instruction should always be considered as a part of instruction in writing, as it significantly increases students' tool kits of available words. At times, doing vocabulary work in the context of writing workshop will help students see how they can expand the range of words they have available to them.


Writers organize their work in all sorts of ways. Teaching students about patterns of organization can help them best represent their work to an audience. In writing done outside of writing classrooms, the content and purpose helps to dictate the form. In school, we sometimes ask students to write in varied forms (e.g., cause-effect, comparison-contrast, process analysis, narrative, poetry) so they can have experience doing so. Students should be reminded that when they write in the real world they will have to make choices about how best to organize their writing, and that they should think carefully about their audience needs in doing so. Students can be introduced to narrative and expository structure effectively by explicitly noting those structures as they read.

Berne. J. (2009). The writing-rich high school classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
Adapted with permission of Guilford Press. Copyright Guilford Press. All rights reserved under International Copyright Convention. No part of this text may be distributed, reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, or stored in any information retrieval system without permission of The Guilford Press.

Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I am a first year teacher and one thing that I am wrestling with is how to teach writing effectively. This article is super insightful, easy to read, and practical. Thank you for including mini-lessons!!!
Posted by: Mary Kathryn Marsh  |  February 12, 2014 03:07 PM
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