I want to reflect on three writing-related principles, one of which is more technical, and two of which are more about the writer’s disposition. I stress these three principles in my ENGL 1322 course, which focuses on argumentative writing, as well as on classical and contemporary approaches to rhetoric.

These three principles can improve writing in any context, whether an email, an essay, or a job application letter.

Clarity

Many elements of writing (perhaps all) link to clarity, and as a result, I will spend the most time here. We don’t like it when we’re misunderstood, whether in speech or writing. As communicators, we must strive to communicate as clearly as possible.

Note that I am not talking about “dumbing down” our ideas or “avoiding sophistication” or “avoiding elegance.” Quite the contrary. Clarity and depth of thought, for instance, are not antithetical, just as a long sentence is not necessarily a wordy sentence.

What we should avoid is confusing our readers, leaving them unnecessarily questioning our exact meaning, ideas, purpose. It’s fine, of course, for our readers to question those elements, provided that we’ve been as clear as possible in our presentation.

Here are some questions that I regularly include on rubrics:

  • What is the main idea, the main direction of the piece?
  • Is it obvious to whom (and why) the writer is communicating?
  • In the composition of sentences and paragraphs, are these the best words for the purpose and the audience?
  • At a structural level, how well does the piece map out each paragraph’s main idea?
  • Do paragraphs open with topic sentences that indicate a clear direction?
  • How effective are transitions from paragraph to paragraph, from sentence to sentence, from idea to idea?
  • How clear is the support and development of ideas?

Humility

Often while reading student writing, I encounter grand assertions and bravado. While writers need not “apologize” for their position/stance, neither should writers present themselvesas pompous know-it-alls who can’t understand why everyone doesn’t hold their viewpoint.

Consider this reworking of a common passage of Scripture: “out of the heart flows the words on the page.” In other words, an arrogant person might likely exhibit arrogance (even in subtle ways) in his or her writing. 

So how does one exhibit humility in writing? Be honest about the limitations of your argument. Present yourself in a way that neither overstates your knowledge and experience norunderstates it. Either inaccuracy leads to problems.  

Charity

We’re writing to someone or some group of people, and people are multifaceted image-bearers of God. Because writing is a conversation between a writer and receiver (even when the tone is more formal), then it behooves us to treat our audience in ways that honor them.

Charity refuses to abide in a mindset of “suspicion” where anyone who holds other viewpoints is a threat, or perhaps worse, not worthy of your time and attention.

Charity leads us to acknowledge that people who don’t agree with us aren’t idiots.

Charity desires the best and the good for others.

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