Associate Vice President Communications & Public Affairs
A friend once told me he would rather drink a bottle of hot sauce than write a two-page essay.
Writing can be scary. I know, because I feel a tinge of doubt every time I express my thoughts on a computer keyboard. In fact, I’m battling it now, even though I’m a professional communicator.
I once wrote front-page headlines for the Los Angeles Times, which means hundreds of thousands of people judged my work every day. My ability to succeed professionally — my ability to support my family — depended on speed, accuracy and creativity. Sometimes I fell short, but far more often I succeeded. I managed to defeat doubt because of a simple truth: Writing can always be better but it will never be perfect. As writers, we are all works in progress.
You’re at this website because at some level you doubt your ability to write. Trust me, you can conquer the beast, but you need a plan. Consider the following exercise a small part of that plan.
Let’s begin with a basic rubric.
For our purposes, a rubric (pronounced roo-brick) is a set of expectations or standards that you can use to measure how well you’re doing. The rubric for this exercise contains four parts:
- Know your audience.
- Avoid factual errors.
- Use correct spelling.
- Get to the point.
If writing were music, these four parts would be the scales. Practice them. Build on them. Good writing, of course, involves more than four steps. So does running a marathon or writing code for a video game or crafting a business plan. Virtually anything worth doing well requires a lot of steps, a lot of practice and a lot of focus.
Know Your Audience
Unless you’re keeping a diary, you’re writing for someone else’s benefit. It could be an English professor, a potential employer or a business prospect. What does the audience expect? What works for one audience might not work for another. Before you start writing, understand the expectations.
Avoid Factual Errors
Establishing trust with your audience is essential. If you cannot get your facts straight, you’re untrustworthy.
Use Correct Spelling
Most students I’ve worked with think spelling is easy because a spellcheck takes care of things. Don’t be phased by this, but if you do not air on the side of caution, you might be in for a root awakening. My spellcheck did not flag anything in the previous sentence, even though it contains three misspellings. (Did you catch them?)
Get to the Point
What do you want to say? If you don’t know, neither will your audience. Typically, you need to do some research to clarify your thinking. The time you invest in figuring out what you want to say will pay huge dividends when you start writing.
Let’s put this rubric into practice with a brief essay about Abraham Lincoln written for a community college history class. This exercise focuses on an assertion or statement of belief, facts that support the assertion, and a conclusion that summarizes why the assertion is correct. (The purpose of this exercise is to highlight writing. The essay is not intended to describe Lincoln or the Civil War in any depth. Footnotes have been intentionally omitted.)
Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president in U.S. history because he guided the United States through its biggest crisis, the Civil War. He struggled at times and made controversial decisions, but he did not waver in his resolve to hold the nation together, and at one of its lowest points he laid the foundation for America to live up to its ideals.
Even before Lincoln was inaugurated, the nation had split apart with the formation of the Confederacy in February 1861. Two months later South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War had begun. The president turned to General Winfield Scott to lead the North. Although he had a long and distinguished military career, he was too old and sick to effectively lead troops into battle, so Lincoln turned to Brigadier General Irwin McDowell and instructed him to attack Virginia. The Battle of Bull Run was a disaster, with Union troops running for their lives back toward Washington, D.C.
This failure convinced Lincoln that the war would be long and costly, so he turned to General George McClellan to organize and train the largely inexperienced soldiers. McLellan proved to be a good organizer, but his hesitancy to engage the South in battle, and his defeats when he did so, forced Lincoln again to select a new military leader. One after another, his choices did not live up to the task, until March 3, 1864, when he named Ulysses S. Grant to command the Union army. Grant believed the only way to win was to engage in total war, which he carried out with bloody efficiency, ending with surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
Between the attack on Fort Sumter and victory at Appomattox, Lincoln took several controversial actions to hold the Union together and press for victory. When citizens in Maryland disrupted the war effort, Lincoln ordered that people could be arrested and jailed indefinitely without probable cause, and he ignored the courts when they told him he had gone too far. In 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the Confederacy. Although some members of his Cabinet thought the action was too radical, it paved the way for the abolition of slavery and dissuaded foreign powers from coming to the aid of the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s most historic achievement, on a still-fresh battlefield in Pennsylvania, took two minutes and is repeated in classrooms and on theater stages to this day. The Gettysburg Address, just 227 words long, not only honored the soldiers who died in the pivotal battle of the war, it set out a vision for what could be possible in the United States — “a new birth of freedom.”
That call to action continues to be played out in the United States and is a fitting tribute to the man who held the nation together during its most troubled time.
Assessing the Essay
The essay meets most of the rubric. The audience is a community college history class, so the writing is simple and straightforward. It is generally accurate and almost free of misspellings. It gets to the point that Lincoln was the greatest president, and it explains why.
Let’s look a little deeper.