Writing—for Academics and Life

(This recap features Denise Johnson, a high school English teacher who led a teen workshop on writing.)

“The prerequisite for writing is having something to say.”
–Langston Hughes

Truths about writing:
• Writing is a skill acquired and refined with time and practice.
• Grammar and spelling are important but are secondary to content and style.
• Skillful writing requires multiple drafts and revisions. Famous authors have at times rewritten their work over 20 times.
• Feedback is necessary to make any writing better.

Of the two main types of writing, formal writing is used primarily for academic and professional settings and is serious, while informal writing is used for a more personal setting and is relaxed.

You should use formal writing for:
• Essays, research papers, etc.
• Reaching out to a client or potential customer
• Job applications (résumés, CVs, and cover letters)
• Contacting someone you do not know

You should use informal writing if:
• Writing to a friend
• Sharing a story or writing a personal blog
• Writing creatively
• Instructed to do so (by a teacher or employer)
• Writing dialogue and conversations
• Writing an outline

When deciding whether to use formal or informal writing, consider your audience, your topic, your opinion, the thought process of others, and the purpose. This will help make your writing clear, compelling, and concise, which are the hallmarks of skillful writing. Clear writing is detailed and often uses the five senses to describe something. The more detailed the writing is, the clearer it becomes in the mind of readers. Compelling writing is persuasive and engaging. This can be accomplished by using interesting stories, true facts, personal testimony, detailed examples, etc. Concise writing is short and accurate. People often think that using big, elaborate words and phrases will get a reader to agree with them or think they are smart; however, it just causes confusion. Being concise is important in formal writing.

When drafting essays, writers need to follow a specific structure to reach the desired mark of greatness. A well-structured essay includes an introduction, reasons, evidence (or supporting reasons), and a conclusion. The introduction presents the topic and gives a thesis at the end of the paragraph. As the main point of the essay, a good thesis is clear and precise and answers the question of who, what, why, or how. A thesis in school essays is usually just one to two sentences but can be up to five, as long as it stays clear. The conclusion gives a call to action or explains the significance of the topic, and it also restates in different words what was already said.

When drafting emails to teachers, employers, coworkers, and strangers, writers should use a proper subject line, heading, body, and closing. The subject line informs the recipient(s) in just a few words what the email is about and why they should read it. The heading or email greeting depends on the level of formality; your salutation may vary from a simple “hi” to an official “Dear Mr./Ms./Mrs./Dr./Professor…” and for most formal communication, a colon instead of a comma should be used after the salutation. For the email body, your writing needs to be precise and on task. This is where you tell why you are writing the message. A formal email closing states what you want the person receiving the email to do (for example, take action or reply to the email). To finish the email, choose an appropriate signature, such as one of these phrases: sincerely, best regards, best, yours truly, respectfully, kind regards, or thanks again.

If writing a story, the key elements are dialoguedescription, drama, and plot twists. Stories typically follow a pattern:  (1) the conflict of the story always comes at the beginning and drives the story forward, (2) the opposition that the main character faces, whether it is inwardly or outwardly, in pursuit of what that character wants, and (3) the journey the main character goes on to seek a resolution.

Writing is a lifelong exercise that can only improve through time and practice. A profitable skill to have, writing can help you make good grades in school, build stronger relationships when you are communicating through social media, and even land more clients if you own a business. Anyone has what it takes to be a great writer!

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