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The Characteristics of Good Writing

Academics / Departments & Programs / English / Writing at Calvin / Characteristics of Good Writing

The following is a guide to successful writing both in the English department and other departments at Calvin University. The first portion of the document describes the characteristics of good writing while the second portion addresses moving from the fundamentals of writing to writing for specific academic disiciplines.

Defining Good Writing

Defining good writing is almost as difficult as defining clean language. One is tempted to paraphrase Justice Stewart and say, "I can't define it, but I know it when I read it." With curse words and good writing—"community standards" differ from community to community and from discipline to discipline, even to the point of flat contradiction between what various disciplines consider good or merely competent writing. Generally speaking, we can agree on the following.

The basic qualities of good writing

Most academics will probably agree on the fundamental qualities of good writing. We may broadly agree that basic errors of grammar and mechanics must be avoided. We may part ways, however, on whether a particular usage is incorrect. For example, broadcast news agencies may allow split infinitives, even though literary critics may not tolerate them. In short, the well-written report or essay will be free of grammatical and mechanical errors; it will conform to the conventions of standard academic English; it will avoid traces of inappropriate dialect or colloquialisms; and it will be sensitive to the level of formality called for by an assignment.

Good writing conveys a clear sense of purpose

Most faculty will similarly agree that good writing conveys a clear sense of the writer's purpose. It is insightful, illuminating, and communicates content that is unified and significant. We are concerned here with what might be called the intellectual impact of the writing; it is theoretically possible (though admittedly unlikely) for writing to avoid the errors of grammar and mechanics mentioned above and still be poorly written. The rare student might write in a way that is both conceptually pointless and grammatically perfect.

Good writing
  • is free of errors in grammar and punctuation.
  • conforms to the conventions of Standard American English.
  • is sensitive to the level of formality required by the paper.
  • conveys a clear sense of the writer's purpose.
  • carries out an effective strategy in terms of development of thoughts and argumentations.
  • demonstrates good style, engaging the reader with its use of diction and punctuation.
The writer's strategy is fundamental

The writer's strategy goes beyond grammar and conception but is just as fundamental to the paper's success. Most faculty will agree that a paper's structure and development—the way its conception is advanced from assertion through argumentation and details to conclusion—are critical to its success. Good writing at this level often depends upon the writer's willingness to outline, to cut and paste, and to discard. In principle, students should complete these are activities well before they begin a final draft, but even good students are often loathe to carry them out.

Good writing shows effective style

Good writing must also show an effective style. Here we recognize, however, an element of subjectivity in evaluation, as well as a difference in the styles commended by various disciplines. Although many faculty may have difficulty characterizing the style of a specific piece of writing as appropriate or inappropriate, they will generally agree that an effective style conveys ideas and information precisely, concisely, and in a manner appropriate to the context of a particular paper or report. An effectively styled essay generates interest and even emphasis through its choice of diction; it demonstrates the ability to use punctuation rhetorically—for effect as well as clarity.

From the fundamentals of writing to the academic disciplines

English 101 introduces students to the qualities of effective writing, as outlined above. But when students move into various academic disciplines, they often find that what a professor means by effective organizational strategy or appropriate style is differs from what they learned in English 101. For example, a business student might be surprised to learn that she is expected to begin the opening paragraph of a case study with a precise and succinct statement of the bottom line, and that supporting detail (which her English teacher suggested was crucial) may even be relegated to an appendix. Students of the natural sciences may discover that a given organizational plan (abstract, introduction, methods and materials, results, discussion) is preferred by a journal, even though the organizational strategies they learned for freshman English papers were virtually limitless. To take a final example, English 101 teaches students to favor the active voice over the passive; this stylistic preference serves students of the humanities well enough, but the chemistry student who prefers the active voice in his lab report may be asked to revise.

Different writing styles are demanded by various academic courses and disciplines. Moreover, it is very difficult to predict the career options of most of our students, not to mention those of traditional liberal arts students. It is also true that the notion of "lifework" is becoming obsolete in a society where workers change careers with increasing frequency. Given these facts, we owe it to our students to prepare then to write competently in as many contexts as possible. The Writing Program Committee suggests that it be the goal of writing instruction at Calvin University to develop students who are capable of writing effectively in various academic and work-related contexts. It would be irresponsible of this committee to propose general characteristics of good writing in a manner that ignored discipline-specific differences in the particular definitions of those characteristics. We are consistent with Calvin's historically liberal arts approach to scholarship if we emphasize breadth of preparation in an area as general as writing.

If we define our notions of "competence" and "incompetence" broadly, with a view to the various disciplines, the competent writer will effectively fulfill the stylistic expectations of more than one discipline (for example, business and the humanities). A less competent writer may be only marginally effective in only one discipline, and the incompetent writer will be incapable of writing effectively according to the conventions of any discipline. We know that under these guidelines true excellence in student writing will be not only hard to define but also quite rare. Our emphasis on developing a student writer's ability to cross disciplinary lines suggests that excellence lies in the ability to appropriate the expectations of one academic style and apply them effectively in a different discipline.

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