Composition Corner

This part of the web site provides helpful information regarding principles of composition--or how to write!. While this area doesn't pretend to take the place of a composition instructor, the following will review general writing principles and then link to other writing topics. Click on one of the topics below, or click on a link to the right to enter a different service area.

Writing Principles

The concepts listed in this section should be regarded as principles (adaptable guidelines, good ideas) not rules (fixed, inflexible). Because writing involves making strategic decisions based on the circumstances of the writing project (topic, audience, purpose, etc.), there is no "formula" for writing well. The following principles, then, are concepts that various writers over the years have found helpful. You should try them out to see if they will work for you--but try them faithfully (don't "change" them and then complain because they didn't work!).

In making these suggestions regarding style, we are not suggesting that writers should never deviate from these principles. We are suggesting, however, that applying these principles generally produces writing that is simple, clear and direct. Be reminded, however, that writing is a dynamic event--each writing opportunity presents the writer with a new situation demanding new strategic decisions. All of these principles (but not their explanations) have been derived from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. Click here to check out the online version.

  • Good writing begins with clear thinking. Many writers at some time have said, "I know what I want to say, I just can't put it into words"? That's a sure sign that the writer needs to think the idea through more completely. One the writer has thought the idea through (asking perhaps, "What do I really want to say"), he/she will be able to put it into words.
  • Good writing proceeds from a plan. A "plan" doesn't necessarily mean an outline, but it does mean some means of organizing ideas before writing them into sentences and paragraphs. Think of it this way: if a person were to travel to Alaska, would he/she just pack some bags and drive in a northerly direction? One might get there using that method, but a map would make the trip more efficient. That's what a plan does for writing--it provides a map to follow to keep the writer on the right road.
  • Good writing focuses on the subject, not on the writer. Most writing will be more emphatic if the writer focuses primarily on the subject. For instance, instead of saying, "I felt that the presentation was effective," saying "The presentation moved the audience" is stronger.
  • Good writing modifies the organization, content, and style to meet the challenge of the specific audience. The audience only "hears" what the writer says, not what he/shemeant to say. The best writers consider carefully the audience they are addressing and then prepare a strategy for the best possible reception of their message. It sounds tough, but all it takes is thinking and planning.
  • Good writing is simple, clear, and direct. Clarity, of course, is the goal of most writing, but "simplicity" and "direct" sound "wrong" to some people perhaps because they have come to think that good writing is complicated and uses sophisticated vocabulary. If a writer wants his/her message to be absolutely clear, he/she must be aware that ambiguity and indirectness may get in the way. Simplicity, however, does not mean simplistic or boring. It means, rather, that the audience exerts little effort in understanding what the writer has written. Excellence has the appearance of ease even though a lot of effort has gone into making it appear easy. For instance, when professional ice skaters like Brian Boitano or Kirt Browning perform, they make those triple jumps and spins look effortless; in reality, however, they are sweating big time--they've put in hundreds of hours in perfecting those moves which look so easy to us. The same is true for writing--the writer sweats so the audience can read with ease.
  • Good writing uses the paragraph as the unit of composition. Many writing problems occur because the writer has a faulty concept of the paragraph. In general, a paragraph consists of one main idea, some related-but-subordinated ideas, and specific supporting details. When some people hear this phrase "one main idea," they think too small, and so their paragraphs are sometimes only one or two sentences long (and sometimes that's fine). Look at the above definition, however; there are three parts to that definition--big idea, related ideas, specific details. While it is possible to "pack" all that into one or two sentences, most "big" ideas (and their groupies) need more space. Ideal packing puts an idea into a container that fits--neither too big nor too small. How long a paragraph should be will be determined by the size of the controlling idea--it's a judgment call that writers must make over and over.
  • Good writing uses definite, specific concrete language. While definite language helps makes writing clear; indefinite language leads to ambiguity--confusion. Take a commonly-used phrase today--"deals with"--what does it actually mean? Literally, "deals" refers to playing cards, as in the sentence, "he deals with his right hand." But we rarely use that phrase in that context anymore. We have used it to mean concerns as in the sentence, "That term deals with the migration of swallows in winter" and to meanresolve as in the sentence, "I'll deal with that issue later." The usage of deals with is so widespread and indefinite that it conveys no clear meaning at all. If a writer is after clarity, therefore, he/she must use specific, concrete words.
  • Good writing omits all unnecessary words. Never make the vehicle bigger than the idea. For instance: "In my humble opinion, though I do not claim to be an expert on this complicated subject, fast driving, in most circumstances, would seem to be rather dangerous in many respects, or at least so it would seem to me" says in forty words what "Fast driving is dangerous" says in four (quoted from"How to Say Nothing in 500 Words" by Paul Roberts). Words take time; use them with care.
  • Good writing uses a variety of sentence structures and lengths. Repetition is boring whether its ideas, words or structures. Get some variety in there! Don't bore the audience with sameness. A word of caution, however: in the attempt to get variety (particularly in words), don't forget the principle of word usage discussed above.
  • Good writing relies on nouns and verbs. Some people have the misconception that their writing will be better if they use a lot of descriptive additions. This misconception may come from the elementary and junior high years when English teachers were trying to get their students to write anything beyond the monosyllabic responses generated by bored writers. The best writing, however, relies on nouns and verbs. Instead of these sentences--"Attendance is a major cause of student failure. It makes students use other students for information"--you could write just one: "Poor attendance causes students to rely on others students for information, often causing failure." The previous sentence uses strong verbs ("cause" instead of "is") and nouns to carry the main ideas of the sentence.
  • Good writing is mechanically clean. Mechanical inaccuracy causes embarrassment and eliminates opportunities for jobs and promotion. While that statement sounds strong, it is true. Many companies today include writing samples as part of the application; if one's writing doesn't measure up mechanically, it is doubtful that a call for an interview will come. Corporations around the world are making communication skills (including writing) among their top qualifications for their employees. Mechanical correctness cannot be left for someone else to check. So what should be a writer's mechanical concerns?

While 95% of the population would never know if a writer misused a comma, they would know if he/she wrote fragments and run-on sentences or if the subject and the verb disagreed. While a writer may not be able to achieve mechanical perfection, he/she should eliminate all major errors, including spelling errors. A major error is one that an educated person (we're talking high-school education) would notice (that doesn't mean they would know what the error is; but they would know that "something" is wrong). These errors include subject/verb agreement, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, pronoun errors, and verb form/tense errors. Access lessons and on these types of errors at the Grammar area of the site. If English is not your native language, you might want to visit our online section for ESL students.

The Writing Process
Paragraphs 
Getting Started 
Getting Organized
Editing Tips
ESL Concerns