2 Making Effective Writerly Decisions
Catherine Forsa, PhD
Much of your writing experience in school may have seemed as if good writing came from following rules from teachers and textbooks. At this stage of your writing experience, however, you are empowered to make informed decisions that will make your document more effective. You make these decisions based on what you know about your audience, purpose, genre, and other key elements in your rhetorical situation.
Making Decisions throughout Your Writing Process
Writing involves making decisions with each word you write, each sentence you put together, each design element you add, in addition to other large and small decisions. Large decisions include those related to your argument, what evidence to include and how to organize it, and other components that build the frame of your document. Consider also how you will present each paragraph, each sentence, and each word so that your ideas are both clear and persuasive. Consider how you will format or design your document so that your ideas are visually as well as verbally clear. There may not be one definitive right answer that you can find in a textbook; rather, there may be a range of answers that could work based on your goals.
How to Approach These Decisions
As you make these decisions, keep in mind questions about your rhetorical situation, which may include:
- Who is your audience? What choices will your audience respond most favorably to?
- What is your main message? What decisions will help your reader most clearly understand this message?
- What is your purpose for writing? What decisions will help your document achieve this purpose?
- What decisions make the most sense for your genre? What conventions correspond with your genre?
Pay attention to your rationale—do you have a well thought out reason for each decision? Your goal is to make it easy for the reader to understand and accept your point. This, though, can be challenging, so your decisions must be part of an ongoing writing process that involves planning, drafting, revising, getting feedback, and repeating these stages until you are confident your document is effective. As you practice this process, some of your decision-making will become more intuitive, especially as you have more experience assessing rhetorical situations.
Strategies to Make Decisions
While it can be overwhelming to consider so many decisions, you can use some strategies to ensure your decisions are effective.
Understand genre conventions: As you analyze your rhetorical situation and begin to plan your document, be sure you are familiar with the genre you will be writing. What conventions (the elements common to a certain kind of document) are typical of the type of document you are writing? A resume has certain elements that an email does not have. Find out what those elements are. You can, for example, seek out sample documents that represent the genre, which can help you see the conventions that will guide your writing. Make note of the distinct conventions shared by documents from a particular genre. Observe how writers worked with these conventions, to inform your own decision-making. Understanding your genre is one way to judge how long your text should be, what design elements to include, and what tone to adopt.
Assess your writing’s effectiveness: Next, practice assessing your own writing and seeking feedback from others. Effective writers are open to revising their work since they know that their writing can always benefit from revision. You are likely familiar with this advice, but now think about it in terms of decision-making. In other words, ask these questions:
- Why did I make this decision?
- Is this the best decision I can make? Is there a better decision?
- How does this decision compare what I’ve seen in sample documents?
- What would happen if I made a different decision? How would the audience likely respond?
In this process, you’ll see that you are empowered to make the decisions that will make your document strong.
In some cases, you may find it useful to test out your decisions. For example, if you are writing a resume, you may try several different layouts. Ask your friends or professors which one of the three would be clearest and most persuasive. This feedback can help you decide which layout to use.
Understanding that writing is an activity where you are making a series of writerly decisions can help you successfully respond to a diverse range of writing problems and situations. Your goal is not to find the “correct” answer when you write; rather, it is to think about and make the decisions that lead to an effective document.