Understanding good writing 1: Some basic principles

Understanding good writing 1: Some basic principles

Writing is arguably the most demanding of the four skills associated with learning English. Teaching learners how to produce correct and effective written language is also probably one of the most demanding tasks teachers of English are faced with on a daily basis. What follows in this first, introductory article, is a series of observations on writing. My main objective is to identify a number of issues associated with writing where useful suggestions can be made in order for our practice to improve.

Writing always starts with reading. The starting point for the development of any productive skill is to engage in its receptive equivalent, paying attention, imitating, adopting, and finally developing a number of language features. Instruct your students, therefore, to read, not only for content, but also for style, structure, vocabulary, as well as for all those aspects of writing which may help them to improve their own writing skills.

Accepting that writing well is difficult is the very first step towards attempting to improve one’s writing skills. By admitting, spotting, and appreciating the difficulties and the hard work associated with writing and discussing them with our students, our aim must be to dispel notions of talent and inspiration, which, most of the time act as mere procrastination techniques.

Producing correct writing is always the main priority for both learners and teachers of English. It is objectively produced and marked and, as a result, it is more straightforward to identify, highlight and address in one’s practice. Our primary focus is grammatical and lexical accuracy, and task achievement – to the extent that this is made measurable by the given instructions.

Effective writing, on the other hand, goes beyond correctness and is about communicating an idea clearly, in an elegant, stylish and persuasive manner. Although it is not always feasible – depending on learners’ individual levels – the distinction is an important one, and must be taught as such, as it makes it clear in the learner’s mind that a text which contains no actual mistakes is not necessarily a flawless one.

Muddled writing is not always the result of a lack of knowledge. Very often, it is the result of a lack of purpose. Having something to say should always be the starting point of any kind of writing. Even the most adept writer would struggle to produce effective writing were s/he asked to write on something that s/he finds
uninteresting or fails to understand. Clear, logical and effective writing can only be the result of a clear and logical way of thinking. Please consider the following experiment. A teacher interrupts the lesson and asks a student in their mother tongue (not in English): “What exactly is it that you are trying to say/write?” In producing meaning in a foreign language, learners are so often engrossed in the difficulty of the endeavour that the original purpose – communication of meaning – is no longer apparent.

Being aware of one’s audience and engaging one’s readers must also be a priority. Due to the frequently abstract and unrealistic nature of many writing tasks, however, this is not always possible. It is certain, nonetheless, that, if this is the case, the quality and efficacy of any text severely diminishes. Instruct your students to always read what they write! If they find it uninteresting and blunt, why would anyone else’s opinion differ?

Finally, I would advise both teachers and learners of English to avoid becoming attached to their words. It is very often that we write something with a word limit in mind, rather than with the main objective of what we need to communicate. Unfortunately, the word limits of writing tasks – used both for teaching and examination purposes – fail to assist the authors in this direction. As a result, we often produce superfluous texts, the meaning of which could have been conveyed in half the time and space. Making sure we have something to say is the answer to failing to meet a word limit; writing the same thing in as many words as possible is not.

Yiannis Papargyris, PhD
English Language Teaching & Testing Consultant