University Writing Program
Beyond the Essay Form:
A Checklist for Real-World Writing Tasks
In my Advanced Composition classes I try to teach other forms besides the essay, since essay-writing skills in themselves don't serve much purpose in the non-academic world. I urge students to examine each different writing task according to following categories, and thus understand how the task dictates the kind of writing and the nature of the finished product. Good writers do a lot of things at the same time, often unconsciously, making any scheme somewhat artificial, but the following categories and subsidiary questions have proven useful in analyzing many different writing tasks and in refining intermediary drafts.
For example, a checklist like this one quickly and clearly reveals important differences between the typical college essay and a business letter: the audience of a college essay is a TA or professor, who presumably knows more about the topic than the writer does; the purpose for writing is to display knowledge, show command of the essay form, and please the grader. The voice is respectful, the length is set by the professor--and usually there's a minimum length, dictated by unit rules-- and the prose style is often contrivedly impersonal and/or scientifically distanced.
- Audience--who will be reading this document? what is their level of knowledge relative to me--do they know more or less than I do? are they sympathetic to my perspective, or will they need convincing of each point?
- Scope--how comprehensive should this document be? what level of detail is appropriate? if these are directions, for example, what steps or fields should I leave out or include, and how will this affect the overall flow of the document?
- Purpose--why am I writing this document? what use will it serve for its readers? what decisions (long term, short term) might be made on the basis of it?
- Length--what's the expected attention span for my readers? what are the conventions for this kind of document? what are the consequences for breaking these conventions?
- Format--does this document dictate a specialized format or layout, like the memo form, business letter, legal brief, outline, report, essay? are bulleted lists or headings expected or allowed? will there be an appendix or footnotes? in what form? will there be graphs and charts? if so, how much explanation will my readers expect?
- Voice--what is my authority on this topic? how much responsibility or latitude do I have for content and slant? if I'm writing to convince, what are the conventions of evidence and argumentative technique in this field?
- Prose Style--what characteristics of prose are expected in this document: is the "I" voice allowed, or should it be avoided? should the flow of ideas progress from general to specific, or should I lay out the most important points first? should scope and purpose be stated explicitly ("This document will do x, y, and z"), or be left implicit?
- Tone--what's the proper level of diction (word choice) and overall formality here? can I be casual or should this be very carefully considered and possibly submissible in court? what's the power relationship between me and my readers? [Note that this category overlaps with Prose Style and Voice.]
In a business letter, however, the writer is trying to inform the reader, to convince the reader to perform some action (like grant a job interview or buy a product). In most letters the writer is some kind of authority on the subject, and can use the I-voice with some confidence without loss of respect--and the usual one-page-maximum space limit means that essayistic rambling and posing will be just a waste of valuable time.
In my courses students apply these categories to every writing task, and discover, for example, why computer user manuals or legal client letters are so difficult to execute effectively (and so important!). I strongly believe that instructors will better prepare their students for the non-academic world if they shift their emphasis away from essayistic, discursive writing and toward more efficient and highly crafted forms.