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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Good Writing

What is Good Writing?

Rubrics and Good Writing

One of my favorite conversation topics is always looking at how school has changed from when I went through.

When I was going through school, I often felt that my writing assignments were judged arbitrarily. Teachers would give you a B with little or no explanation. I still believe that content was relatively unimportant. Form was dominant. Lots of metaphors. Using a Thesaurus. Style over substance. And style was not well defined.

Then almost a miracle happened in college. I had an English professor - horrible of me that I've forgot his name - but he had the most wonderful approach. He had various writing style requirements that slowly added up over the course of the semester. Your first assignment only needed to meet the first requirement. Second assignment had to meet requirements 1 & 2. It was clear. And best of all, his biggest mantra was to stop using extra words that were not required. Shorter was better. Extra words were bad. To this day, I thank him.

The good news these days for my kids is that there is often a rubric (set of evaluation criteria) that are used to grade their writing. There are also some automated systems that students can submit their writing to that grades it based on various criteria. However, I've sometimes been pressed into service trying to up the automated grade only to find that my writing brings down the score. Still, there's a push to better define good writing. And much of the rubrics follow what that great English professor used.

Missing Element in Definition of Good Writing

While I applaud this move, I think that there's something vitally important missing in education. It's also a skill that most all of us who have gone through the education system need to work on.

What led me to talk about this was a recent conversation and a post that discusses the need that I've cited before that we need to write for skimming. In the case of that post the focus was on writing ad agency blog copy. It cites an old post by Jakob Nielsen:
How do users read on the web? They don't.

In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent ... scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.
This is far lower than the numbers that my blog readers told me. But my claim is that this isn't only on the web. It's emails. It's memos. Heck it's all the writing that I do these days.

No one has time to read details. We all skim dive skim. As writers we have to adopt practices for writing for skimming. Jakob Nielsen provides the following advice for scannable text:

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing
There are quite a few other suggestions in the post Write for Skimming.

Good Writing Redefined

My kids are still learning the old 5 paragraph paper with intro, 3 body paragraphs, and conclusion. They are not being taught the necessity of:
  • What This Is - What is needed from the reader having read this email. Oh, this needs to be in the title or the first sentence.
  • Brevity
  • Skimming support
  • Sign posts
  • Use the same word repeatedly if you mean the same thing
  • Capitalize when a word or phrase means something specific - like a lawyer - This is called Title Case - and I just used it on the phrase Title Case. It means that Title Case refers to something specific and is not just a couple random words thrown together.
I know that I often fail at this, but we need to at least be aware of these new elements of what makes something good writing.

Can you help out here? I bet there are some fantastic resources that define good writing much better than I can. What could I look to as my rubric? What should I hand to a new employee fresh from college? Or maybe even harder a 55 year old employee who wonders why people only read the first sentence of their email (me included)?

Side Notes

One ironic note is to take a look at the page for the inverted pyramid style by Nielsen. I know that I shouldn't cast stones given all of my failings on good writing. But I would claim that it violates quite a few of what Jakob is telling us is important.

I wonder what the impact of IM and txting will have on writing. The good news is that it emphasizes brevity.


Anonymous said...

thanks, it was a great post, very useful. Sorry I can't help with defining good writing, but I do agree with the points you mentioned.


Anonymous said...

“What is good writing?” It is really all about context. Although I agree that concise and bullet-pointed writing can be worthwhile in certain contexts, I do believe that teaching fundamentals is the first priority of a K-12 writing curriculum.

Tony Karrer said...

Jon - great points. It is about context. And I am talking about a certain kind of context. However, almost all of my writing fits that context ... writing for busy content consumers. What writing doesn't fit? ... writing a novel is different. But even writing for a business book or magazine article - that still should use these principles.

Teaching fundamentals is what K-12 is all about. However, I would think that this is part of the fundamentals. Maybe not during K-6, but certainly 7-12.

Anonymous said...

I skimmed your article, so I think you said something about good writing being short, concise and to the point.

I agree.

There is, in writing instruction, the notion of discourse communities (groups with specialized language--jargon--and particularized format. Blogging is a discourse community, as are IMs, e-mails and linked-in recommendations.

Instructional materials should reflect the community to which it addresses (the traditional audience) as well as the "grammar" or "rules" of the training medium. PPT slides are visual with very direct text. E-learning classes can offer more social scenarios for greater contextualization of content. And so on.

Good topic.

I have written more here:…ight-communitywriting-for-the-right-community/

Unknown said...

One drawback I see is the assumption that most people do most of their reading on the web. Another is that the same style of reading applies in all formats (web, email, electronic documents, paper documents, magazines, newspapers, books).

How do you know that "we all" skim dive skim? Have you been hanging around my office lately? My hunch is that you skim and hang out with a lot of skimmers skimmers, so you end up thinking all swans are white.

Although your readers tell you, "no, that's not us," you don't accept it. So why ask? They may be self-reporting, but so are you.

And, honestly, are you recommending that someone striving for clarity write like a lawyer? What's the last end-user agreement, contract, or lease you skim dive skimmed?

Sweet suffering succotash, you'd be hard pressed to imagine another professional group with a more dismal, ponderous, pedantic, polysyllabic, tortuous--and deserved--reputation for writing intended mainly to lay boobytraps for the unwary while covering the client's rear.

Tony Karrer said...

@Bill - good post.

@Dave - fair enough. There likely are some people who have not given in to skim-dive-skim. I have no idea what the real percentages are. And likely the same person might read more deeply based on the context.

Isn't the trick to write for skimmers and readers in the same content? I believe that most of my suggestions work pretty well for both audiences.

But fair point by you - I'm thinking of myself and the people around me - mostly fellow skimmers. So, do the writing suggestions I made hinder reading for deeper readers?

Nancy Devine said...

Your kids certainly should be learning something better and more useful than the five paragraph essay. There really is no dearth of good writing pedagogy. If you want to know what good writing instruction includes, check out the "Writing Next." A quick Google will take you to it.

I'm not entirely sure what those commenting here mean when they say "the fundamentals." I get a little nervous when I see the word "fundamentals" showing up in a discussion about education, especially when it comes to writing.

Elementary schools students can and do learn to write. Struggling students---at elementary, middle and high school---can and do learn to write.

Students can be taught about audience and purpose, and that they must take both into consideration when they write.
Bill Jackson's comments articulate these considerations well.

Yes, I'm a high school English teacher and a writer.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

I am a sceptic. I am sceptical of any message that tells me what I should read and how I should read it. I'm also sceptical of a message that suggests that other people read the way the message has told me I should read.

I watch my daughters read, and they do read differently from me. Am I to tell them, "no, this is the way you should read"? Do you think they would listen to me if I did?

I think you are right to wonder about how writing is being interpreted by readers. But my hunch (and it is a hunch based on anecdotal evidence of watching young readers) is that not everyone reads the same way.

Speed reading is an art. I'm not talking about skimming here. Speed reading is also far more accurate and valuable than skimming, for the detail is taken in at a speed that is faster than the skimming reader can 'scan' the text.

Speed reading also increases concentration, so that detail as well as meaning is assimilated. It comes back to comprehension, which I have not seen a mention of on this post so far.

With speed reading, comprehension soars. Most people who read will have a comprehension level that varies with their environment, what's happening in their life at the moment, what's going through their head when they attempt to read. In short, their concentration is poor.

With speed reading concentration soars so that comprehension can reach astonishing levels, and I'm talking about 95% and above here. Compare this with 15% to 20% for a normal reading pace.

Catchya later

Michael Hanley said...

Hi Tony,
I blogged on this topic about 10 months ago, yet it's something that is always relevant and pertinent. The core of my post was based upon George Orwell's Five Rules for Writing Good English, and in my view they're as relevant today as when they were written. Remember that Orwell was a radio reporter for the BBC, and the skills needed to write informative and engaging narrative for radio also apply for e-learning and instruciton.

Anonymous said...

I agree in general organizational / structural ideas, which make sense for business writing. Goldilocks examples:

Poppa Bear--executive summary at the beginning of a lengthy, detailed document. The writer realizes he's not doing a movie script; the conclusion or recommendation doesn't have to wait till the third-from-last scene.

Momma Bear--subheads, bullet points, even five lines at the outset that explain the organization of what follows.

Baby Bear--a useful subject line in email. "Let's go with Acme" tells me a lot more than "Vendor summary and recommendation," let alone "Re: Re: Re: Vendor Selecti"

Things like level of language and amount of detail are part of that context. We all shift the formality and content of our speech depending on the listener. We can't know who our reader will be; the best we can do is be clear about who we think we're writing for, and to go about that consistently.

Tony Karrer said...

@Dave - Thanks for the clarifying Tweet - I'm suggesting the use of Title Case to indicate phrases with specific meanings. :)

@Nancy - When I search for Writing Next I find a great research report talking about the importance of specific elements. Several I'm not seeing in my kids curriculum - Collaborative Writing, Word Processing. I'm not seeing the details of writing styles via that search. Pointer?

In fairness - our El Segundo Schools start with writing in Kindergarten and it's wonderful to see how this helps the students in all sorts of ways. They have great rubrics. But that said - yes - the 1-3-1 format still is used and there's no indication of any teaching of the elements I'm describing here.

@Ken - Interesting question about speed reading vs. skimming. I need to ponder that.

@Michael - thanks for the point. Good bullet list in there (whoops I skimmed down to that). And it reminded me that I once saw this great thing about how in radio they structure things a particular way in order to engage and signpost things because there's no visual indicators. Looking at my suggestions - these are visual cues. Now where did I see that.

@Dave - Like the Goldilocks approach. Have you seen specific examples of this? Any thoughts on what this means for something like a blog post?

Anonymous said...

Goldilocks was just three examples of structure. I've often done taken the Momma Bear approach in a lengthy email, for example, as in:

Tony, I'm writing to:

- Update you on my meeting with Ronnie (she's okay with the plan)

- Request your OK for the YaddaYadda conference (May, $1800)

- Give an overview of the attached project plan

The idea is that these three are related, or that you as my boss prefer one email to three. (See? Contetual!) Thanks to the mini exec summary (or table of contents), you already know the outcome of two items. And you figure detail for item three will appear in... item three.

I'd go on from there. In the olden days I'd use all-cap headings for each major section; mixed case with a line of equal signs under for subheads.

Now I have bold, italic, other formats. I'd also use white space (the neglected organizer) to set things apart.

Does that help?

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - what's beautiful about those bullets is that I know what you are really asking of me. Actually Bullet 3 I don't know.

On bullet 1 - Would you expect that I would skim or read the details? (Note: I would skim.)

V Yonkers said...

As someone who is totally immersed in this these days, there are really 4 different schools of thought on writing instruction. The 5 paragraph approach is now embedded in our current system because it is fairly easy to standardize and assess.

However, many who teach writing, and writing researchers look more to the communicative or rhetorical approach to writing. As Nancy commented, this looks at the purpose and audience of the writing and students learn that writing is not standard. This means that a report that will be a permenant record will have a certain style that will be different from a web page.

If you are interested in the transition between academic and workplace writing a great resource is "Worlds Apart" (Dias, Freedman, Medway, and Pare, 1999) which looks at research on the difference between the two contexts, looking specifically at students as they go through the transition.

Anonymous said...

Hi, a friend sent me this a while ago - I don't think its 100% what you are looking for and even though I'm not doing any academic writing I found it useful

Anonymous said...

Bullets one and two: I don't care if you skim or dive. They had very specific aims, easy to capture. The detail's there because, despite claiming you don't read it, I know from working for you that you do want it -- or, more likely, that I'll need to prove to you that it was there all along.

(At one job, the admin assistant never, ever left our boss the original of a document. If it needed a signature, the admin waited while the boss signed. Otherwise, the original vanished into the Snowbank of Hung-Onto Stuff and never again saw the light of day.)

There isn't a way to give a bullet overview of the project plan -- because the plan's more complicated that a single line.

The bullet ever so gently says, "Go look."

"Just give me the bottom line" people sometimes think lines are the only reality. They like "Project plan looks good." Then, when they learn too late (because they skimmed inadequately) that A, B, and C are great, while D is mediocre, and problems may occur with E if F doesn't happy till March, they turn red and shout, "Why didn't you let me know?"

So bullet 3 demonstrates a situation in which the amount of summary would not fit well into a single bullet.

You're gonna have to dive.

(That's where the handy, within-the-section organizers come in.)

Mark said...

Great post. Very interesting. I have always found the book "Communicating Technical Information" by Robert R. Rathborne (1985) to be a great resource to improve my writing.