Checklist for non-Academic Writing Tasks
John Stenzel
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.

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.