Skip to main content

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.

On this page:

Introduction

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.

Audience

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.

How’s It Done?: A Mini-Lesson on Audience

1. Teacher introduces the subject under discussion.

“Today we are going to talk about audience. In writing workshop, we benefit greatly from having an audience of other writers to respond to our work. Sometimes the response from the reader is emotional, as we might do if we were sharing final drafts. Other times, peers are listening in order to give advice or feedback on the writing that is being presented. If you listen carefully, you can get lots of insight. If you learn to anticipate what they will say, you may attend to many of their needs before you share with them.”

2. Teacher talks about how students get started in this process.

“Often, we will work in peer response groups to get feedback from several people at once. Today we are going to talk about an audience of one — a partner who reads your work and shares impressions, questions, and notes.”

3. Teacher models the process for students on chart paper, an overhead, document camera, or the chalkboard.

“Cara was nice enough to read my first draft in order to model this process. She read my first draft and then came up with the following questions and comments. Teacher posts text on overhead, document camera, or via LCD projector. After students have read the original text, she puts up the text with Cara’s comments on it. Now that I have read her comments, I have to think about them. I am thinking that I really agree with this one, so I am going to start there; these other comments are interesting, but I don’t think I am going to attend to all of them at once. I will start with this one and go from there.”

4. Teacher leads students in practicing the process.

“Now I want you to practice this. Select one brief entry from your writer’s notebook and exchange it with a partner. Each student should write two questions or comments on a sticky note andthen return it to the writer. Once the writer has the comments back, they must sit and think about which one they might attend to first. Remember, we are going to respect the opinion of our audience, but we don’t have to do anything they suggest if, for instance, we can come up with a different change than what was suggested. The important point here is to think hard about what is said.”

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“OK, someone share a really good piece of advice or questionfrom their partner and tell what it made you think of. Someone else share a piece of advice that you also thought was good but decided not to use. Tell us how you came to that decision.”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“Now when you do this with longer pieces of writing, you may struggle a little. We will continue to practice so that you will improve.

Purpose

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.

How’s It Done?: A Mini-Lesson on Purpose

1. Teacher introduces the subject under discussion.

“Today we are going to talk about writing with a clearly defined purpose. When we plan and draft, we want to think about why our audience would bother reading our work if they weren’t required to because of their participation in a writing class.”

2. Teacher talks about how students get started in this process.

“Sometimes when the writing task is wide open, the purpose question is the primary one. Let’s say I am given free reign to write whatever suits me. I decide that I am going to write about a friend of mine who just published a book. After I read the book, I was put in this awkward position because I didn’t really understand it and he asked me my opinion. So that is what I want to write about. As I am writing, I realize that I have to ask: What I am doing? Why am I writing this?”

3. Teacher models the process for students on chart paper, an overhead, document camera, or the chalkboard.

“Let’s say I am partially through the story about reading the book and being completely baffled and I have just written this line, ‘There was a moment when I was sure this book made me feel like the stupidest person alive.’ Now I am stopping and thinking, that sounds kind of whiny — is my purpose to make myself feel a certain way about my own reading or to discuss the awkwardness of having to discuss the book with my friend? I’ll have to think hard about my purpose in order to figure out if that line is really necessary.”

4. Teacher leads student in practicing the process.

“Now I want you to take 2 to 3 minutes to write down a description of your bedroom. Students are given time to write. Now I would like you to imagine that you are writing a description of your bedroom for a specific purpose — to lobby your parents for new carpet or to show why it does not need to be cleaned anytime in the near future.” Students are given another short time to write.

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“What was the difference between writing a neutral description and writing one for a more specific purpose? What words, perspective, or imagery had to change? Please read both versions to a partner to see whether they can hear the differences. See whether they can tell which is which and how they determined it.”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“When you are drafting your pieces in the next little bit, think about why you are presenting something in a certain way. When you do that you are really thinking about your purpose.”

Voice

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.

How’s It Done?: A Mini-Lesson on Voice

1. Teacher introduces the subject under discussion.

“today we are going to talk about how voice can help enliven your writing. Nobody wants to read work that sounds like a computer wrote it. In fact, the thing I enjoy most about reading your writing is how it sometimes sounds exactly like you. If you think about the texts you really enjoy reading, I think you will realize that they often have very resonant voices.”

2. Teacher talks about how students get started.

“When I am writing I think to myself: Am I presenting this as me? Am I thinking about my audience and purpose and adjusting my voice according? What kind of language would be most effective here, and how would it sound?”

3. Teacher models the process for students on chart paper, and overhead, document camera, on the chalkboard.

“I wrote this piece earlier and realize that it is a little dry. I want to add some life to it. What do you think? [Teacher reads piece of her writing.] What are some things I might do to add my voice? Now, say I wanted to sound like someone else wrote it, maybe my 10-year-old nephew. What would he sound like?

4. Teacher leads students in practicing the process.

“Now I want you to take a piece of writing from your journal and read it to a partner. [Students read.] Now see it you can add something that will help us identify it as yours even if we didn’t know who wrote it. Are there some characteristics of your voice that you could translate to paper? after doing that, see if you can make it sound like someone else wrote it — a friend, a celebrity, a parent. What would their voice sound like?”

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“Do you see how language choices and patterns can help us to change the voice?”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“Voice isn’t something that develops overnight. When you read, try to notice what makes a piece of writing sound as it does. Then see what happen in your own writing when you experiment that way. We will continue to talk about this and begin to note it in one another’s writing. “

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.

How’s It Done?: A Mini-Lesson on Word Choice

1. Teacher introduces the subject under discussion.

“Today we are going to talk about choosing words when we write. Sometimes, as part of the process of revision, we go back and look carefully at our words to see whether they can be more precise or lively.”

2. Teacher talks about how students get started.

“Let’s say I am writing about a time when I was really happy with an outcome of my work. I am writing along and realizing that I keep using the words ‘happy’ and ‘pleased,’ and that these words aren’t really expressing what I want them to express.”

3. Teacher models the process for students on chart paper, an overhead, document camera, or the chalkboard.

“I decide that I am going to make a list of all the words I can come up with that mean ‘happy’ and that I am going to put them on a continuum from mildest to most exuberant. I may use a thesaurus to help me. Here I go: ‘satisfied/pleased/relieved/tickled/joyful/thrilled/ecstatic/exuberant.’ Now that I have those words at the ready, I feel more able to use them flexibly and appropriately as I continue to write.”

4. Teacher leads students in practicing the process.

“Now I would like you to take another word, say, ‘angry’ or ‘bored,’ and do the same thing. Go ahead and work with a partner to come up with a continuum from mildly (bored or angry) to extremely (bored or angry). Try to come up with at least 10 words on your continuum.”

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“I know it seems strange to stop writing to do something like this, but this very quick exercise can really help with word variation.”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“When you are writing in the next few days, give this a try.”

Organization

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.

How’s It Done?: A Mini-Lesson on Organization

1. Teacher introduces the subject under discussion.

“Today we are going to talk about how to organize writing. Let’s take a look at these two texts, one fiction and one nonfiction. What do you notice about how they are structured?” [Students respond.]

2. Teacher talks about how students get started.

“I am going to take a piece of writing from my writing notebook that I have long since forgotten to see if I can resurrect it into something by changing the organization.”

3. Teacher models the process for students on chart paper, an overhead, document camera, or the chalkboard.

“Here is this piece I wrote on my feelings the day I was driving to work and heard on the radio that one of the twin towers had been hit by an airplane. I never much liked the way I wrote it the first time. I wonder, now, if I reorganize it by writing it from the point of time I am in now, as a flashback, what would happen, how it would change. I could also see if I can compare the way I felt that day with the way I felt the day I heard about Hurricane Katrina. I wonder what would happen if I changed it more by making it into somewhat of a comparison.”

4. Teacher leads students in practicing the process.

“Now I would like you to pull a piece of writing from your journal or notebook and see whether you can think about how it could be reorganized at least two different ways.”

5. Teacher debriefs the whole group.

“How did that go for everyone? Was it difficult to imagine representing something in a different format?”

6. Teacher prepares students for the physical, cognitive, and social demands of doing this independently.

“I tend to start my papers the same way every time, so as I read, it is important for me to look carefully at other forms of organization that I might use. For the next few weeks, please do the same. When you see a pattern of organization that you recognize as you read — in other classes, in here, or at home — note it in your mind or write it down, and see if you can try that with your own writing.”

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.