by Jessie Szalay
Are you going to wear a t-shirt or a sweater today? Answer your phone or let it go to voicemail? Eat an apple or a banana? Let your friend pick the show on Netflix or fight for your favorite? We make decisions all day every day, narrowing dozens of options down to a few, often without even noticing, and then selecting our chosen option fairly quickly. (After all, who says you need to wear a shirt at all? It might be a bathrobe day.)
Writing, and all communication, is no different. Deciding whether or not to answer your phone is a decision to engage—the same kind of decision you have to make when it comes to your composition class assignments. What are you going to write about? Each potential topic is like a ring on your phone: “Answer me! Pay attention to me!” But do you want to? Maybe that topic is like your dramatic relative who talks your ear off about old family grudges from the 1970s—too exhausting to think about and leaving you speechless. Or maybe that topic is like an automated phone survey, and you just can’t get interested in the issue. In order to produce the best writing you can—and not be miserable while you’re doing it—you’re going to want to pick a topic that really, truly interests you, with which you are excited to engage, about which you have the resources to learn, and about which you can envision having something to say. After all, writing is an action. By writing, you are entering into a conversation with your readers, with others who have written about the topic, and others who know and/or care about it. Is that a community you want to engage with? A conversation you want to be a part of?
All this thinking sounds like work, right? It is. And it’s just the first of many, many decisions you’re going to make while writing. But it’s necessary.
Making decisions is a fundamental part of writing. The decisions you make will determine the success of your writing. If you make them carelessly, you might end up with unintended consequences—a tone that doesn’t fit your medium or audience, logical fallacies, poor sources or overlooked important ones, or something else.
I’ve often thought of my own writing as a process of selecting. Rather than starting with an empty page, I sometimes feel like I’m starting with every possible phrase, thought, and a dozen dictionaries. There are so many stories I could tell, so many sources I could cite, so many arguments I could make to support my point! There are so many details I could include to make a description more vivid, but using them all would turn my article into a novel. There are so many tones I could take. By making my article funny, maybe more people would read it. But by making it serious, it might appear more trustworthy. What to do? My piece of writing could be so many things, and many of them might be good.
You might have heard the saying, attributed to Michelangelo, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Each chip in the marble, each word on the page, is a choice to make one thing emerge instead of something else. It’s a selection. It’s up to you to select the best, most rhetorically effective, most interesting, and most beautiful option.
Where Do I Start?
Deciding on your topic (“the decision to engage,” as termed by The Harbrace Guide to Writing) is often the first choice you’ll make. Here you’ll find some more decisions you’ll need to make and some ways to think about them.
But first, a note on rhetorical situations. Your rhetorical situation will largely determine what choices you make, so make sure you understand it thoroughly. A rhetorical situation is the situation in which you are writing. It includes your message, your identity as an author, your audience, your purpose, and the context in which you are writing. You’ll read more about the rhetorical situation elsewhere.
These tips assume that you already know the elements of your rhetorical situation, and focus on how to make good choices accordingly.
Genre is the kind of writing you are doing. The term is often applied to art, film, music, etc., as well, such as the science fiction genre. (Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of genres.) In writing, genre can refer to the type of writing: an argumentative essay, a Facebook post, a memoir. Perhaps your genre will be chosen for you in your assignment, perhaps it won’t. Either way, you will have to make some choices. If you’ve been assigned an argumentative essay, you need to learn about the rules of the genre—and then decide how and to what extent you want to follow them.
Form or Mode of Delivery.
This is often similar to genre. For instance, a Facebook post has its own genre rules and conventions, and its mode of delivery is, obviously, Facebook. But sometimes a genre can appear in various forms, i.e. a sci-fi novel and a sci-fi film are the same genre in different forms. You could write your argumentative essay with the intent to have it read online, in a newspaper, or in an academic journal. You might have noticed that many politicians are now laying out their arguments and proposals via series of tweets. This is a calculated decision about the form they are using.
Something I love about English is that there are so many ways to say things. One of the myriad elements I adore in the English language is that there are thousands of options for phrasing the same idea. I think English is great because it gives you so many choices for how you want to say things. English rocks because you have a gazillion words and phrases for one idea.
Different words work with different tones and audiences and can be used to develop your voice and authority. Get out the thesaurus, but don’t always go for the biggest word. Instead, weigh your options and pick which one you like best and think is most effective.
Sentence Structure and Punctuation.
As with word choice, the English language provides us with thousands of ways to present a single idea in a sentence or paragraph. It’s up to you to choose how you do it. I like to mix up long, complex sentences with multiple clauses and short, direct ones. I love semi-colons, but some people hate them. The same thing goes for em dashes. Some of the most famous authors, like Ernest Hemingway and Herman Melville, are known as much for their sentence structure and punctuation choices as their characters and plots.
Tone is sometimes prescribed by the genre. For instance, your academic biology paper probably should not sound like you’re e-mailing a friend. But there are always choices to make. Whether you sound knowledgeable or snobbish, warm or aloof, lighthearted or serious are matters of tonal choices.
Modes of Appeal.
You’ve probably heard that logos, pathos, and ethos should be in balance with each other, and that can be a good strategy. But you might decide that, for instance, you want to weigh your proposal more heavily toward logic, or your memoir more toward pathos. Think about which modes will most effectively convey what you want to say and reach your readers.
You professor likely gave you a word or page count, which can inform many other decisions you make. But what if there’s no length limit? In higher-level college classes, it’s fairly common to have a lot of leeway with length. Thinking about your purpose and audience can help you decide how long a piece should be. Will your audience want a lot of detail? Would they realistically only read a few pages? Remember that shorter length doesn’t necessarily mean an easier project because you’ll need to be more economical with your words, arguments, and evidence.
Organization and Structure.
Introduction with thesis, body with one argument or counterargument per paragraph, conclusion that restates arguments and thesis. This is the basic formula for academic essays, but it doesn’t mean it’s always the best. What if you put your thesis at the end, or somewhere in the middle? What if you organized your arguments according to their emotional appeal, or in the order the evidence was discovered, or some other way? The way you organize your writing will have a big effect on the way a reader experiences it. It could mean the difference between being engaged throughout and getting bored halfway through.
Detail, Metaphor and Simile, Imagery and Poetic Language.
Creative writers know that anything in the world, even taxes, can be written about poetically. But how much description and beautiful language do you want? The amount of figurative or poetic language you include will change the tone of the paper. It will signal to a reader that they should linger over the beauty of your writing—but not every piece of writing should be lingered over. You probably want the e-mail from your boss to be direct and to the point.
How much does your audience know about the topic, and what do they need to know to understand your writing? Do you want to provide them with the necessary background information or do you want to make them do the work of finding it? If you want to put in background information, where will it go? Do you want to front-load it at the beginning of your writing, or intersperse it throughout, point by point? Do you want to provide a quick sentence summary of the relevant background or a whole paragraph?
These are just some of the elements of writing that you need to make choices about as a writer. Some of them won’t require much internal debate—you’ll just know. Some of them will. Don’t be afraid to sit with your decisions. Making good ones will help ensure your writing is successful.