Efficient written communication may be considered as if it were a process similar to math or chemistry. So, trying to help a student frustrated with his/her writing, I’ll often hear myself plead, “you just have to learn ‘the formula’.” A petard (perhaps canard to some) upon which I recently found myself hoist.
As in … the mother of a student recently thanked me for his SAT writing score increasing from 610 to 710. I was pleased for him and for her, but was struck with the sadden (sic) realization that a number was being interpreted as a creativity measure. One hundred more points shouldn’t define anyone as a “better” writer, when what it really measures is an improved mastering of a process.
In this case, the process is creation of a standard five-paragraph (two-page) essay, skeletalized as:
- Address the question in the first sentence, preferably with an thought interesting to reader and not just a recitation of what is asked
- List and create thematic links for three main arguments in the first paragraph to support what will be said on the topic
- Begin each of the next three paragraphs by expanding on how one of the arguments is relevant, and then add two to three specific examples and evidential support
- In final paragraph acknowledge others differ, before briefly highlighting how they focus on the question from a more limited scope, or use tainted evidence
- Conclude a couple sentences later suggesting that the actual conclusion is at least slightly more far reaching than specifically detailed in the essay
- Edit with an eye out for tics that put off readers. These include sentences under (somewhat arbitrarily) five words or more than 15 and paragraphs of fewer than four or more than six sentences. Reduce or eliminate qualifiers (such as “maybe,” “possibly,” “at least,” and “seemingly”), and review for spelling, grammar and repetitious use of words that can be deleted or replaced with synonyms.
Checking off the points leads to SAT score improvement and a likely ace of Freshman English. My student had written better, but from the short time in which we worked together I knew he had cared little and perhaps not at all about his subject. Effective is not necessarily affective. For that kind of communication to happen, the creator has to have passion for the subject, which is never formulaic. SAT scoring be damned, real communication between writer and reader requires that the never-formulaic be aped.