Improving Your Writing
Writing a strong letter to apply for a job or putting together a convincing argument for a business report requires more than a collection of nouns, verbs, and punctuation. Good communication skills include the basics, of course, but proper planning, a pleasant style, and close attention to detail also count. This study unit is designed to help you make the best use of the writing tools you already have by making them work for you as you plan, develop, revise, and present your work.
P r e v ie
w P r e v ie
w When you complete this study unit, you’ll be able to
• Identify your audience, medium, and purpose
• Focus your ideas
• Organize your material
• Plan both informal and formal writing projects
• Use words, punctuation, and sentences to achieve the effect you want
• Revise, edit, and proofread to make your final copy accurate, professional, and attractive
THE PLANNING PROCESS 1
Prewriting 2 Organizing Your Material 6 Patterns of Organization 6 Outline Options 9 Developing an Outline 11 The Formal Outline 16
WRITING YOUR DOCUMENT 21
Types of Writing 21 Key Considerations 25 Writing the First Draft 33
STRENGTHENING YOUR STYLE 36
How to Give Your Writing Punch 36 Choosing the Right Words 41 Informality and Formality 44 Using Words Properly 47
REVISING, EDITING, AND PROOFREADING 55
Revising Your Writing 55 Editing Your Work 58 Proofreading the Final Draft 61 Presenting Your Work 64
PRACTICE EXERCISE ANSWERS 67
SELF-CHECK ANSWERS 73
C o n t e n t s
C o n t e n t s
THE PLANNING PROCESS
Just as there are many ways to write, there are many ways to describe the process of writing. In this study unit, we’ll break down the process into these stages:
• Writing the first draft
• Revising and editing
The writing process isn’t always linear. That is, writers don’t always include every step or follow each step in order. They may begin writing a first draft without really knowing what they wish to say, for instance, and then go back and plan the revision using an outline. They may proofread as they go along and not make a special effort to do so as a separate step. Or, once they’ve gone through the entire process, they may decide to discard what they have and start again. This may happen in business, for instance, when a proposal is rejected but the company wishes to pursue the project from another angle.
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Prewriting The first stage in the writing process is actually prewriting. This is what you do before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Prewriting comes even before planning because you don’t even have anything specific to plan yet. During prewriting, the first thing to do is to determine your purpose, medium, and audience.
Why are you writing? What do you hope to achieve? The answer is your purpose.
What form will you use—a letter, a memo, a report, a proposal, an essay, a poem, a story, or something else? The answer is your medium.
Who will read the final piece of writing? What are their needs and expectations? That’s your audience.
It’s important to understand your purpose, medium, and audience from the very beginning. Doing so will help you to work through the writing process efficiently and effectively. Without understanding these three elements, you’ll have trouble focusing your ideas and writing with confidence. Or, you may write with ease, yet unintentionally focus on the wrong points and fail to achieve the results you intend.
Once you know your purpose, medium, and audience, it’s time to find out what your thoughts are about your topic so that you can decide how to approach your writing project. Suppose, for instance, you’re asked to write a paragraph about cars. What would you say? Maybe it’s not even a topic that interests you. However, you have to come up with something interesting to say.
Who asked you to write the paragraph, and why? Let’s say, since this course resembles a classroom, that a writing teacher has given you this assignment. Your purpose is to demonstrate that you’ve mastered the basics of written English expression. Your medium is given—a paragraph. Your audience is the teacher and (let’s pretend) the rest of the class. So, what will you say in this paragraph to demon- strate your English skills to your teacher and classmates?
There are many ways you could get ideas. All it really takes to get you started on a writing project is one good idea that excites you. Finding that idea is the goal of any prewriting exercise.
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You can take five steps as you prewrite: brainstorming, webbing, freewriting, researching, and journal keeping. We’ll examine each here, beginning with brainstorming.
What does the topic of “cars” bring to mind? To find out, try brainstorming. Make a list of every idea that comes to mind. Don’t exclude anything. Don’t worry about put- ting these thoughts in order. Right now you’re just writing down everything you think might be a possible focus for your paragraph. You may end up not using most of these ideas.
You might even wish to brainstorm with one or more other people. Ask questions. What do you think of cars? What cars do you like? What would you like to read about cars? Other people may come up with ideas that will trigger even better ideas of your own.
A list on the subject of cars might look something like the list in Figure 1. These are just a few suggestions, of course—you could come up with many more ideas.
A similar exercise, called webbing, is perhaps even more useful than brainstorming. It shows relationships between some of the ideas you have. To begin, write your topic (cars, for example) in the middle of a piece of paper (Figure 2). Circle it. Draw a line out from the circle and write another word—the first word that comes to mind about the topic, for example, wheels. Circle that word, too. Draw a line out from there and write another word that comes to mind about the second circled word, for example, hubcaps. Circle the new word and keep going, for example, flat tire, my first flat, learned to change tires in driver’s ed., and nobody stopped to help. Then you can go back and start a new chain from the key word, cars. You can start many chains. Often, you’ll come up with something interesting.
Big cars Henry Ford
Little cars Model T’s
Are RVs cars? TR7s
My first car Used car lots
Car accidents Drive-in movies
Speeding limits Driveways
Speeding tickets Garage door openers
Drunk driving Car seats
Leather seats Seat belts
FIGURE 1—A Brainstormed List
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To freewrite, you fill a piece of paper with any idea that comes to mind about your topic. Don’t stop to think. Don’t lift your pen. Just write! Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure or anything else except your topic. Your goal is to come up with that one good idea, and the best way to do that is to set your creative mind free (Figure 3). Your mind can’t be creative if it’s worried about spelling and semicolons.
Here’s an example of freewriting on the topic of cars.
My car got so hot today. The sun was shining in the windows all afternoon and heated the steering wheel into a fiery circle. My car’s a Geo just a little thing saves me money on gas gets me where I want. My first car was a gigantic Plymouth Fury. We called her Megacar. Mega was used. Geo was new when I bought it but sure looks used now! Mega better in snow. Big cars are probably safer. But it cost a mint to fill Mega’s tank. And that was during the energy crisis. Cars and the energy crisis. Whatever happened to the energy crisis? Aren’t cars still using up resources? And pollut- ing? How come we don’t hear that any more? I need to look into this.
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Many people like to look to outside sources for ideas for writing. For the assignment on cars, you might go to the library and look for information on cars. Or, if you’ve already decided you’re interested in one of the narrower topics you’ve come up with while brainstorming, clustering, or freewriting, you could look up more information on that idea. Read a biography on Henry Ford, for instance, or do some research on the energy crisis, the history of speed limits, or the pros and cons of small versus big cars.
Some people write their most interesting thoughts and expe- riences in a journal, which is a record of events, ideas, or reflections, kept for private use. If you write in your journal regularly, it can be a good source of ideas to write about for other purposes. For instance, perusing the journal entries near the time you bought your last car, you might recall issues that were important to you and come up with a topic like “What to Look for When Buying a Car.”
FIGURE 3—Freewriting on any topic, such as cars, can reveal the many ideas that constantly pass through your mind.
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Organizing Your Material
Any time you sit down to write something—an e-mail message, a letter, a report, a proposal—you must organize the material you’re going to present (Figure 4). Of course, short documents, such as e-mails and memos, don’t require the same degree of organization as long reports, but the quality of any written document improves when you think through what you want to say and, sometimes, write an outline.
Patterns of Organization
Sometimes the nature of the information you collect deter- mines how you should organize it. Other times, the decision may not be so clear. In this section you’re going to examine the following types of organization:
• Chronological order
• Spatial order
• Cause and effect
FIGURE 4—No matter how short or how long your document will be, always take time to organize your material. Sometimes, just jotting down your thoughts and ideas is a good beginning for organizing your topics.
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Chronological order has to do with time and sequence. A document written in chronological order presents the material in the order in which it happened or should happen. For example, suppose you must write a report on the steps necessary to perform a particular production task.
You would start with the first step and proceed in the order in which the steps should occur. Such information fits naturally into the chronological order pattern.
Material written in chronological order uses words like first, second, third, next, then, after, and finally. These terms help the reader establish the order in which things occur.
Spatial order involves physical space. A document written in spatial order presents the material in the order in which it is physically arranged. For example, suppose you want to describe the arrangement of furniture in a room. You might begin with one corner and work your way around
the walls. Or maybe you’ve been given the responsibility to develop the layout of your production area or office space or the arrangement of products in a showroom. Such material would lend itself to organization in spatial order.
Material written in spatial order uses words and phrases like at the extreme left, next, above, over, under, beneath, to the right, and at the end.
To use the classification/division pattern to develop a document, you begin with a collection of items of any kind and then group, or classify, them according to some similar property or properties. Or you may begin with one whole item and divide it into various parts.
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Suppose your boss wants a report on all the clients your department worked with last year and the types of jobs you did for each one. You start out with a list of all the jobs you completed last year. Then you could group them according to client or according to the type of job. This type of information lends itself well to the classification/division pattern of organization.
When you compare two or more items, you show how they’re similar; when you contrast two or more items, you show how they’re different. When preparing a document, you may use only comparison or only contrast, or you may encounter a subject that should show both.
Suppose the department you work in uses batteries that are produced by Company A. Your supervisor has discovered that Company B produces the same kind of battery but charges approximately 25 percent less. Your supervisor wants you to look into this issue and write up your findings.
This situation is a perfect one for the comparison/contrast pattern. Once you gather all the information on both types of batteries, you can show the similarities and differences between the two types.
In setting up the material for a comparison/contrast docu- ment, you can present all of the information on one item first followed by all of the information on the other item. Or you may decide to discuss the similarities and/or differences one by one, going back and forth from one item to the other.
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect organization involves examining certain elements (causes) to determine what will occur (effects). For example, you may work in a department that produces parts for automobile radios. You want to know how production would
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be affected if you added one more machine to your depart- ment. The adding of the machine is the cause, and the change in production is the effect.
Although most reports written in the cause-and-effect organization begin with the cause and proceed to the effect, you can also begin with the effect and work backward to the cause. For example, you may have noticed that the quality control employees in your department have recently been discovering a high percent of defective parts, and you want to know why. In this case, you begin with the effect (a high number of defective parts) and work toward the cause of this problem.
Preparing an outline is an important part of any writing. Don’t be tempted to skip over this task. First of all, with an outline you can see at a glance what you’re going to include in your document. An outline can also reveal to you that you’ve left something out. If so, you can easily add it to your outline. If you decide to revise or reorganize the information, you can do it much more easily with material in outline form than you can with written paragraphs.
The two types of outlines are sentence outlines and topic outlines.
A sentence outline consists of complete sentences for each item in the outline. This type of outline has one main advantage—it provides the topic sentences for your main paragraphs. Figure 5 presents part of a sentence outline developed for a market report.
A topic outline consists of grammatically similar words or phrases, organized according to the way in which they’ll be covered in a written document. Topic outlines are more commonly used than sentence outlines and are often based on your brainstorming or initial note taking.
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There are three advantages of topic outlines:
1. They’re easier to prepare than sentence outlines.
2. They become the basis of a table of contents for the document.
3. They supply the internal headings for your document.
Figure 5 illustrates a sentence outline, while Figure 6 depicts a topic outline of the same information.
I. Our appraisal of the retail market for HomeGym in the Roanoke Valley area of Virginia has reached a satisfactory conclusion.
A. Basic research supplied by the Association of Sporting Goods Manufacturers (ASGM) has provided the following information:
1. The Roanoke Valley area of Virginia is an appropriate market for HomeGym.
2. Competing products should not impinge on a satisfactory market share.
B. In light of the unserved market for HomeGym in the Roanoke Valley, our purpose in this report is to suggest preferred retail outlets in Roanoke and surrounding communities.
1. A research summary provided by the ASGM provides factual summaries on 14 qualified retail outlets in the Roanoke Valley.
2. The report from ASGM also includes a recommended schedule for product insertions into the qualified outlets.
II. Research provided by the ASGM explores our target market region through demographic profiles of three market segments.
FIGURE 5—Partial Sentence Outline for a Market Report
When you’re preparing a topic outline, make sure to write your words or phrases in parallel structure.
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Developing an Outline
Brainstorming is an excellent way to help you develop an outline for a report—or for anything you write, for that matter. Suppose you have the responsibility to put together a report on how to evaluate the quality of a used automobile. To get an idea of what you want to include in your report, you con- duct a brainstorming session. After the session, you have a pile of index cards. Each card contains an item that a person should inspect before purchasing a used car.
Next, you study the items on the cards and eliminate those that you feel are unnecessary or irrelevant. After you’ve done this, you’re left with a stack of cards that contain topics you want to cover in your report. Suppose the topics you have are those listed in Figure 7.
Once you have the topics you want to cover, you can begin to categorize them. To do this, you must arrange the items in some logical sequence or order. As you study the list of topics in Figure 7, you notice that the items fall into three main categories: exterior inspection items, interior inspection items, and engine inspection items. You arrange the cards into three separate piles, grouping them according to these three categories. Once you’ve done that, you have the start of a good outline.
I. Results of appraisal
A. Research from Association of Sporting Goods Manufacturers (ASGM)
1. Appropriateness of Roanoke Valley as market for HomeGym
2. Competing products
B. Preferred retail outlets in Roanoke and surrounding communities
1. Research summary from ASGM
2. Schedule for product insertions
II. Demographic profiles of three market segments
FIGURE 6—Partial Topic Outline for a Market Report
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Here’s what you have now:
I. Exterior inspection items Body Headlights Dents Turn signals Scratches Brake lights Rust Lights
II. Interior inspection items Air conditioner Radio Speedometer Gas gauge Passenger safety devices Door locks Seat belts Instrumentation Accessories
FIGURE 7—Here are the ideas you generated during your brainstorming session.
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III. Engine inspection items Fan belt Cooling system Air filter Oil filter Water pump Filters Radiator Fuel filter
Now that you have this initial outline, examine the items in each of the three major topics again. Try to determine if you can divide these main sections even further.
As you examine your beginning outline, you discover that each of the sections can be divided into two or three sub- divisions. Once you make adjustments for these subdivisions, you’re outline looks like this:
I. Exterior inspection items A. Body
1. Dents 2. Scratches 3. Rust
B. Lights 1. Turn signals 2. Headlights 3. Brake lights
II. Interior inspection items A. Instrumentation
1. Gas gauge 2. Speedometer
B. Accessories 1 Radio 2. Air conditioner
C. Passenger safety devices 1. Door locks 2. Seat belts
III. Engine inspection items A. Filters
1. Air filter 2. Oil filter 3. Fuel filter
Including headings in a report helps your readers understand the order of your material. Headings also help readers find the infor- mation they need.
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B. Cooling system 1. Radiator 2. Fan belt 3. Water pump
Now you have something you can work with as you begin your writing. The outline gives you direction. Notice, too, that you can use this outline as your table of contents. Then, as you prepare your report, you can also use these topics as headings for the body of the document. Including them gives your readers some direction and focus as they read your information.
Practice Exercise 1 To practice sorting ideas, rearrange the following groups of ideas as instructed. Write your arrangements on a separate piece of paper.
Example A: Listen to bird-call records; Preparing for bird watching; Study bird guide; Clean and focus binoculars
Preparing for bird watching
A. Study bird guide
B. Listen to bird-call records
C. Clean and focus binoculars
1–6: Each of the following groups contains one main idea and several other ideas that are merely examples, illustrations, or explanations of the main idea. Write the main idea and then list under it the ideas that explain or develop it more fully. Use the format in Example A for your answers.
1. Remember the Maine; Make the world safe for democracy; War slogans; Remember Pearl Harbor
2. Open Door Policy; Truman Doctrine; American foreign policy; Monroe Doctrine
3. Dirty living conditions; Causes of poor health; Absence of medical care; Poor diet
4. Overemphasis on athletics; Too much emphasis on winning; Evils of college sports; Failure to provide for the poor or average athlete
5. The actual writing; Gathering ideas; Steps in writing; Making a plan
6. The interview; Studying the help-wanted ads; How I got the job; Sending a letter of application
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Practice Exercise 1 Example B: Assembling the required utensils; Following the recipe; Decorating techniques; Baking a cake; Making the frosting; Icing the cake; Assembling the ingredients; Decorating the cake
I. Baking a cake
A. Assembling the ingredients
B. Assembling the required utensils
C. Following the recipe
II. Decorating the cake
A. Making the frosting
B. Icing the cake
C. Decorating techniques
7–10: Each of the following groups of words and statements contains two main ideas and several other ideas that are merely examples, illustrations, or explanations of the main ideas. Find the two main ideas, and then, under each, list the ideas that explain or develop the main ones more fully as shown in Example B.
7. Eagles; Ducks; Quail; Game birds; Owls; Birds of prey; Pheasants; Hawks
8. Ice skating; Swimming; Baseball; Winter sports; Tennis; Skiing; Summer sports
9. Foul shooting; Batting; Fielding; Floor play; Set shooting; Pitching; Basketball; Guarding; Baseball
10. Sarcastic talk; Attractive appearance; Skill in conversation; Reasons for unpopularity; Pleasing personality; Selfishness; Consideration for others; Sense of humor; Reasons for popularity
Check your answers with those on page 67.
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The Formal Outline While a formal outline may vary in structure according to the nature of a report, most outlines have three sections, which correspond to the three main sections of any written document:
1. Introduction (A, or abstract)
2. Body (B)
3 Summary (C, or conclusion)
The following paragraphs briefly review these three sections.
The introduction establishes the purpose of your report. To make that purpose clear or to put it in context, you may also include background information that explains the history of the problem and the reasons it demands attention. Perhaps the most important part of the introduction is a list of the major topics discussed in the body of the report. Needless to say, the topics should be listed in the order in which they’ll be covered in the body of the report.
The body of your report should contain the information needed to fulfill the purpose of your report. It will elaborate on each of the major topics given in the introduction. Your outline of the body of your report should be logically ordered in terms of major headings, secondary headings, and possibly detailed headings under the secondary headings.
The summary of most reports briefly repeats the main topics and draws conclusions that lead to recommendations. A purely technical report, however, may simply come to a conclusion that’s the basis of the report. For example, a discussion of the utility of a particular kind of circuit board may simply end with a concluding statement that declares the thing useful in a certain context.
A formal outline generally follows a particular pattern, as shown in Figure 8.
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The Structure of a Formal Outline
B. Statement of purpose
C. Sources of researched information
D. Explanation of why some data is unavailable
E. Definitions of terms or concepts
F. Sequence of major topics discussed in report:
1. Major topic #1
2. Major topic #2
3. Major topic #3
II. Major topic #1
A. First subtopic
1. Detail of first subtopic
2. Detail of first subtopic
B. Second subtopic
1. Detail of second subtopic
2. Detail of second subtopic
a. Subdetail of second subtopic
b. Subdetail of second subtopic
III. Major topic #2
(This topic follows the same developmental structure as major topic #1.)
IV. Major topic #3
(This topic follows the same developmental structure as major topic #1.)
A. Restatement of main theme or concept
FIGURE 8—A formal out- line generally follows the structure shown here.
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In a formal outline, you may have only two major topics, or you may have many more. Some major topics will have subtopics and details of those subtopics; other major topics may have no subtopics at all.
Finally, if you divide a topic into subtopics, you must include at least two subtopics. Never list only one item under a topic.
I. Introduction I. Introduction A. Topic 1 A. Topic 1
1. Subtopic 1. Subtopic 1 B. Topic 2 2. Subtopic 2
B. Topic 2
In the incorrect example, “Topic 1” has only one subtopic. This is an incorrect construction. The correct outline lists two subtopics under “Topic 1.” Think of it this way: You can’t divide something and end up with only one part. When you divide a topic, you must list at least two subtopics.
Remember that your outline, whether informal or formal, is a working document that can be changed if necessary. If you discover that a topic requires further breakdown or that one of your subtopics is worthy of more attention, by all means, revise your plan. After all, the outline is meant to help you organize your work, not discourage curiosity or hinder inspiration.
Now take some time to practice what you’ve learned. Complete Practice Exercise 2, then go on to Self-Check 1.
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Practice Exercise 2 Now that you’ve learned the basics of outlining, try developing your own formal outline. You may have to research your subject if you need general information or details to complete your outline. Choose a topic that interests you and decide on the pattern of organization you’ll use, because we’ll be building on this outline for future writing assignments.
Prepare a formal topic outline for a composition on one of the following subjects. Use words or phrases for your outline.
How to Work with a Business Partner
Florence Nightingale: A Woman with a Vision
Getting Ahead through Education
My Plan for Professional Advancement
The Advantages of Online Education
Professional Journals: Something for Everyone
The Best Boss I Ever Had
Three Things I Learned on My First Job
Check your outline against the suggestions on page 69. This exercise is for your own benefit. Do not send your outline to the school.
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At the end of each section of Improving Your Writing, you’ll be asked to pause and check your understanding of what you’ve just read by completing a “self-check” exercise. Answering these questions will help you review what you’ve studied so far. Please complete Self-Check 1 now.
1. a. Five types of prewriting are
b. During prewriting, the three things you must determine are
c. The goal of prewriting exercises is to find
2. Looking to outside sources for ideas or information is called _______.
3. What pattern of organization would be most appropriate for the following subjects?
a. Why production is down in Department A b. Whether you should purchase your supplies from Company A or Company B c. The steps in the process of producing your product d. The physical rearrangement of a manufacturing plant e. The reason for poor morale f. Items to be included on a routine safety inspection
4. Explain the advantages of sentence and topic outlines.