More and more institutions today really care about how well prospective candidates can put their thoughts on paper or in a digital document. It is no longer enough to be able to choose from given answers. You must be able to construct clear messages and essays with few, if any, grammatical errors. Your essay must be purposefully structured, and you must include several major points and supporting sentences for each of them. Attempting to produce a well-written product requires many considerations.
Institutions have various methods of testing a candidate’s writing ability. First, be assured that anything you write on an application is considered a sample of your writing ability. Don’t be tempted to ignore the rules, like capital letters and punctuation when filling out forms.
Another method of determining a person’s ability to write is by administering an actual writing test. Two major types of writing tests are in use today. One of them is the more objective multiple-choice or other short-answer test. This type gives a sentence or passage and asks you to recommend corrections to provide additional clarity or grammatical correctness.
The other type of writing test involves actually writing an essay in response to a prompt. The prompt might simply give you a subject or it might be more detailed. Some prompts even ask you to analyze the writing of others and create an essay based on your observations. You might be asked to determine if a writer’s argument was valid, if the author used sound reasoning, or to give suggestions for improvement.
Here are some of the most important things to know and consider when attempting any writing test and to make any writing you do reflect well on your general competency.
All writers write with a particular purpose in mind. Whether the purpose is to persuade, entertain, inform, or record information, writing is done for a purpose. Being aware of that purpose and remaining focused on it will produce a solid text.
Writing to a prompt usually occurs on tests and applications. You are provided with a specific question or writing situation and must address it in your response. When you are writing to a prompt, it is important to understand exactly what you are supposed to do and what the assessors are looking for; if you miss addressing part of the prompt, it can result in a lower score or dismissal of your application.
Dissecting the Prompt
Dissecting the prompt is the activity good writers employ to ensure they understand exactly what is being asked of them in a writing task and to use as a checklist to make sure that they have included everything. Here are the basic steps to dissecting a writing prompt:
Read the prompt.
Draw a box around all of the action words (what is the prompt asking you to do?).
Copy each of the verbs you identify to the bottom of the page (or use the back of the paper or a planning paper if you need to).
For each verb, ask yourself who or what you are supposed to be doing based on the verb.
Identify the answer to each question and jot it down on your paper so that you are clear as to what you need to do, address, and include in your response.
For example, the prompt says “Write an essay in which you evaluate the method used by Richard’s mother to teach her son a lesson in the short story Hunger. Was she right to force Richard to go back on the street, or should she have handled the situation in a different way? Clearly state your position on the issue. Support that position with evidence from the story and with real-life examples.” Here’s what your notes might look like:
Write (What do I write?)—An essay
Evaluate (Who or what am I evaluating?)—The actions of Richard’s mother (Was she right to force him back to the street and not let him in the house?)
State (What do I state?)—My opinion/position with regard to the actions of Richard’s mother
Support (What kind of support do I need to use?)—Textual evidence and support from real-life experiences and examples
This activity can also be done by circling the verbs in the prompt and underlining the portions of the prompt that answer the questions about the verbs. Depending on time and your own writing style, you may find one of these approaches more helpful than the other. Either way, when you are finished planning your essay, you should return to the list or verb identification you have created to make sure you have done everything you were asked to do by the prompt.
Creating a Plan
Although some people feel that spending the time prewriting or planning for their writing is a waste of time or that things turn out better when they just jump right in, this is seldom true. A little bit of planning or preparation generally yields much better results than writing done without any preparation.
Creating a plan can be as simple as a brief outline of the major points you want to be sure to cover and it does not have to take long to do. But having this kind of “map” to follow as you write will help ensure that you complete all of the tasks required by the prompt, that you have organized all major points in a way that makes sense and flows well, and that you don’t forget any important points. Writers who don’t go in with a plan often find themselves trying to figure out where to stick something in at the end, or having to rewrite because the order isn’t clear.
There are two ideas for “charting” your writing plan on this page of our TSI Assessment: Writing Study Guide.
Using a Checklist
Referring often to the prompt and reading your writing to ensure that everything ties back to the question(s) posed in the prompt are important. Using the “dissecting-the-prompt checklist” of verbs and things required for you to do, double-check your writing to confirm that you have included all of the requirements. You may also use your brainstorm, planning page, map, or whatever prewriting you have done to also guarantee that all information is included.
If your instructor does not give you a specific checklist for the assignment, you can create your own. It should include these major points:
Introduction Paragraph: Does the introduction paragraph hook the reader and present ideas in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading? Is the main idea clearly stated? Does it relate back to the prompt?
Body Paragraphs: Does each body paragraph have a clear topic sentence that ties back to the main point introduced in the introduction paragraph? Does each body paragraph include specific textual evidence to support my position or claim? Are the paragraphs and ideas presented in a clear, organized way that will make sense to the reader and do they transition smoothly from one to the next? If required by the prompt, have counterarguments been presented and rebutted?
Conclusion Paragraph: Is the main idea restated in a different way? Are the supporting ideas and evidence summarized effectively? Does the conclusion paragraph leave the reader with something to think about after they have finished reading?
In General: Have I carefully proofread for spelling, capitalization, and punctuation issues? Are there any places that don’t flow smoothly or transition easily? Does the order make sense? Have I selected the best diction and sentence structure for my audience, purpose, and tone? Does it seem like anything is missing? Have I repeated anything unnecessarily? Have I cited all of my quotes and outside sources? Does the essay have (or need) an appropriate, interesting title? Has the writing been formatted in the required way?
These checklist requirements may change somewhat depending on the writing task, purpose, and audience. You may adjust the criteria as necessary.
Not only do writers write with a purpose in mind, they also write with a particular audience in mind. Sometimes the audience can be quite broad, like the readers of a newspaper or magazine, and sometimes it can be more focused, like those who read a medical journal or technical document. Regardless of the scope or size of the intended audience, it must be considered by the writer to be successfully engaged. Knowing your audience, their bias and background, can help you determine the diction, structure, examples, and support you will use in your writing. If you are writing to a classroom of kindergarteners, you are going to write differently than if your audience is a college admissions board.
Even when writing to a prompt for a school assignment, test, or application, it is important to consider the audience and reflect: Who am I writing this for? What will they be looking for in my response? How can I impress them? What arguments or examples are going to convince them of my position or claim? What level of diction will they be expecting? What organizational structure will make the most sense to them? In contemplating these questions, you begin to plan and structure your response.
There are many different types of writing and the type you produce will affect your purpose, audience, tone, and structure. No matter the type of writing, it is always important to consider the subject about which you are writing, your purpose for writing, the audience you are targeting, and the tone you think would be most effective. The following are some of the more common types of writing you may find yourself producing.
In argumentative writing, after conducting extensive research and consideration, the writer puts forth a claim or statement about a topic with which not everyone will agree, supporting it with evidence to “argue” his or her position. Argumentative writing requires investigation of a topic, careful research and evidence gathering, and a clearly defined position. This type of writing is set up with an introduction paragraph that identifies the subject, explains to the audience why they should care about this subject, and includes a clear thesis statement that defines the writer’s position with regard to the subject. The body paragraphs are built on evidential support gathered by the writer from reliable, accurate, and current sources of information.
Argumentative writing includes a complete argument, including an explanation of possible counterarguments and rebuttals as to why or how those counterarguments are somehow flawed. This kind of writing tends to use appeals to an audience’s logical and emotional sides in a balanced way. Its tone is factual and matter-of-fact. The purpose of argumentative writing is really to get the reader to understand your position and see that there is merit to that interpretation, especially if it is an interpretation they hadn’t considered before. Argumentative writing doesn’t take the next step, which is to convince the audience that your position is the best position. That is saved for persuasive writing and is generally created through diction and tone.
It is important in argumentative writing to consider audience, as “arguing” to a group of adult professionals would require a different tone, different diction, and, possibly, different examples of support than, say, arguing to a group of your friends.
Persuasive writing is similar to argumentative writing in that you are identifying a topic and choosing a side, but unlike argumentative writing, there is usually less research involved. The purpose of persuasive writing is to convince the reader to agree with your opinion on a topic. Like argumentative writing, your introduction paragraph should provide background information about the subject, explain to the reader why he or she should care about the subject, and include a clear thesis statement with your position clearly established. However, the arguments and evidence put forth in the body of a persuasive text tend to be more emotional and less researched than those of an argumentative text.
Persuasive writing tends to appeal much more strongly to the reader’s emotions, using loaded language to elicit an emotional response from the audience. This type of writing sometimes ignores counterclaims, focusing instead on the claims made by the writer. However, the persuasion can be much more effective when counterclaims are mentioned and then rebutted in an effective and persuasive way. The tone of persuasive writing is generally more aggressive, passionate, and emotionally charged than argumentative writing.
It is important in persuasive writing to consider audience. Because it tends to be emotional, you must consider the diction that will have the biggest effect on the reader. What do they care about? What arguments can you use that will convince them that your interpretation is the best interpretation, regardless of the feelings or position they had coming in to reading your text? There is a delicate balance between being persuasive and having your audience feel they are under attack. You must take this into consideration when determining your approach.
Informative writing is simply writing to inform the audience about a subject. The purpose of informative writing is to increase the reader’s knowledge or understanding or to help the reader better understand a procedure or process. Informative writing answers questions of how and why and does not try to persuade or argue for a particular position. It is solely to increase the understanding of a concept. As a result, the tone of informative writing tends to be factual, clear, direct, and to-the-point. Informative writing does not use flowery or loaded language or vivid verbs; it is objective and straightforward.
Audience is still an important consideration for informative writing as you will need to use diction and structure your writing in a way that your audience will understand and not become more confused. How much prior knowledge about the subject do they have? What vocabulary terms associated with the topic will you need to use, and will you need to translate or explain what those terms mean to your audience?
Newspaper: Factual Article
The factual articles found in newspapers (not the Op-Ed stories) report the facts of an event or situation in a non-biased way. Not writing to persuade or convince, factual articles include research done by a reporter on a newsworthy event and their purpose is to tell the story of what happened. Journalists or authors of factual articles do fact-finding activities and conduct research that may include interviews with eyewitnesses or those who experienced the event firsthand. The tone of news stories is generally factual and objective. There are times, however, when the author’s bias may come through, or emotional diction may be used to steer readers in a certain direction or make them view the story in a certain way. Watch out for these subtle attempts at persuasion and be aware of the impact of diction on the reader.
Opinion writing is a type of writing where the writer unapologetically shares his or her opinion on a subject with the audience. Opinion writing is not necessarily persuasive in nature; it is just the writer giving his or her opinion, thoughts, and reactions to a topic. Opinion pieces are often full of loaded language and are intended to evoke an emotional response in the reader. An opinion piece may or may not refer to trustworthy facts or evidence. The tone may be sarcastic, critical, empowering, or encouraging, among many others.
Academic Journal or Essay
An academic journal or essay is written with the purpose of presenting information, findings, research, or experimentation. The tone of academic journals and essays tends to be complex, scientific, objective, and use vocabulary appropriate to the subject. The intended audience for an academic journal or essay are the people who are in that field of study. A general audience or average reader may not fully understand what is being said if he or she is unfamiliar with the subject or terms used to describe it.
Office memos are written in the business world as communication within an organization. Memos are short and their purpose is to bring attention to problems or issues that need to be addressed or to inform the reader of new information. Memos are not intended to elicit a reply, but to start conversations that generally take place in-person. Memos may use headings, bullet points, or lists to keep the reader’s attention and to make the most important information he or she needs to know “pop” off the page. The tone of office memos should be professional, respectful, and appropriate to the purpose. They should also only be sent to people who are directly affected by their content, not to everyone in the office.
Email is a type of writing done over computer or electronic device. Billions of email messages are sent each day, covering everything from a quick note to say hi to a friend to business correspondence. Email is a key form of communication in today’s world. Because the purpose can be so varied, the tone and audience are equally varied. It is imperative in email writing, however, to remember that tone is often difficult to assess in an email. Thus, it is very important to consider diction and how your message will be received by the reader.
You should also be aware of your audience in terms of writing in a formal or informal tone. Email includes an opportunity to enter information on the Subject line. The subject should be relevant to the content of the email. There is generally a greeting in an email (just like in a letter), then the content (which should relate back to the subject line), and a closing. There is no guarantee of privacy with an email: remember that they can be forwarded and shared with others without your knowledge or consent. And, as with all writing, make sure that you proofread and don’t rely on the computer to make all necessary changes.
Letter: Personal or Business
Letters can be written in one of two styles: business or personal. A business letter is more formal in tone and is used to correspond with a business or company. It begins with the sender’s address, then the date, the recipient’s address, a salutation or greeting, the body of the text (including your purpose for writing the letter), a closing, and then your signature. Personal letters are less formal in tone, generally begin with the date and then a salutation, the body of the text, a closing, and your signature. Personal letters are a form of personal correspondence.
Even with letters it is important to consider your audience and to select diction and structure that will appeal to your reader.
A speech is a type of writing that is intended to be delivered orally to an audience. It begins with an attention-getter and tends to use language that builds a sense of inclusion or community (often by using first-person pronouns like we). Depending on their purpose and intended audience, speeches may have an encouraging, unifying, divisive, or critical tone. Speeches usually use loaded or flowery language and vivid verbs to appeal to the audience’s logical and emotional sides.