Any piece of expository writing, whether a report for work or an essay for a college English class, will be successful only to the extent that it is read; understood; and, if we have done our jobs well, appreciated. At the very least, it needs some kind of introduction that tells our readers where they’re headed and what they’re likely to find on the journey they have agreed to take with us. If we don’t provide this, we risk having them scratch their heads in bewilderment because they will feel as though they have come in on the middle of things.
After we’ve written an introduction that provides this road map, we’ll want to develop solid paragraphs that refer back to and extend our introduction. Every paragraph needs a topic sentence—a general statement that provides an overview of what the paragraph is about—and all of the information in the paragraph should relate only to and deepen that particular topic. If, for example, the topic sentence is about fruit, we will not want to include in the paragraph material about flat tires and incense unless we are certain we can successfully relate these to the topic of fruit.
Of course, if we create a paragraph around one topic but say little of importance about that topic, it is as if we have said nothing at all. To be successful writers, then, we need to develop our topics by providing substantive information that supports and deepens them. This includes using our own knowledge, observations, and experiences and offering paraphrased, summarized, and quoted material from our sources that add authority and credibility to our own ideas.
Crafting a paragraph (or sets of related paragraphs) around one topic goes a long way towards ensuring cohesion (when ideas hold together, one after the other) and coherence (when the writing flows smoothly). Using transitions that connect the ideas from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next also helps to create a cohesive and unified piece; however, it is not enough just to use transitional words (such as “however”) and phrases that link sentences and paragraphs. Other transitional devices include taking an idea from one sentence and repeating or paraphrasing it in the next as well as referring back to an idea in a preceding paragraph.
Concluding well is as important as beginning well, and there are any number of ways to end an expository piece of writing. One way to end is to synthesize what you have written and to suggest why the reader should care about what you have said. Another conclusion strategy is to offer compelling information or insights that you have not mentioned previously.
Last week, while grading the first sets of essays in my writing classes, I noticed that many of the papers contained overly long sentences with grammatical structures that snapped under their weight. As a result, I decided my students and I would need to have a conversation about the importance of being concise.
For a number of reasons, though, it is difficult to describe how one goes about being crisp in one’s writing. To begin, the word “concise” means different things to different people, so getting agreement on a definition is no easy task. And, more and more I am coming to see that what appears superfluous to one writer might be essential to another.
Take, for example, my having just written, “And, more and more I am coming to see that….” Of course I could have simply said, “I see that….” To me, however, there is a certain rhythm to the original, which I am entitled to admire :), and there is also a sense I wish to convey by using the present progressive tense that I have come slowly to this understanding.
Perhaps we can agree, though, that there are obvious redundancies to avoid in our writing, and rooting them out might be a good way to develop sensitivity towards the more subtle excesses. Here, then, is a list of common superfluities:
- Actual fact: By definition a fact is something that “is indisputably [or actually] the case,” so just the word “fact” will suffice.
- Added bonus: A “bonus” is something that is extra or added, so “added” can be deleted.
- Advance planning: “Planning” is something we do in advance. No?
- At the present time: When we say “at present” we mean at this time, so we can just say “at present.” We can be even more concise and say, “Now.”
- End result: If you think about it, a result is something that happens at the end, so the word “end” is unnecessary.
- Enter in: When you enter a place, you go into that place, so “in” is redundant.
- Past history: There is no need for the word “past.” In the known universe, history is something that is always in the past. Right?
- Revert back: When something “reverts” it returns to a previous state, so “back” is unnecessary.
- Still remains: This is a phrase I have been known to use, and more than once, but it is redundant: If something remains, it is still there, so out with “still.”
- Unexpected surprise: If you expected a surprise, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
- Unintentional mistake: If we make a mistake, we make it unintentionally, so just “mistake” will do.
- Written down: I am often guilty of this redundancy. Something that is written is something that is written down. “Written” is all we need to say, then.
So now you know.
The words “systemic” and “systematic” are often confused, but they have different meanings. According to Grammar Girl, “systemic describes something that happens or exists throughout a whole system” and “systematic describes something that was thorough and intentional, methodical, or implemented according to a plan.” Here are some examples of use: • Investigators found systemic corruption within the organization. • He studied for his final exam in a systematic way.