Major Composition Elements

Revision requires judgments and evaluation. The process of revision is most effective if guided by a set of principles, or criteria, to measure the major elements of good writing. An understanding of such a set of standards is crucial to identifying what needs to be improved in a draft of your composition.

The purpose of revision is to see what needs to be improved. The improvement can be global or local. When you seek global improvement, you examine the structure of ideas in the whole composition. In other words, you seek to improve upon how you present and elaborate on your ideas, how you group them, and how you sequence them. For local improvement, you focus on word- and sentence-level concerns about grammar, use of words, punctuation, and documentation style.

 

Major Composition Elements: Thesis Statement

A thesis statement is the claim that your writing makes. It is the center of your ideas. It controls the whole paper. In other words, a thesis statement describes a specific point of view or a judgment about a certain issue. It prepares the readers for the argument to follow.

Revising your paper involves rethinking your thesis statement. In the early drafts, your thesis may not be the best it can be. Check your thesis statement by asking the following questions:

 

Example:

The thesis statement below at left has been revised. Think about why the original thesis statement needs revision and how the revised statement narrows down the development of a composition.

Drunken driving should be a serious issue in Congress.

Revised to:

In order to save lives, Congress should enact legislation to force states to adopt stricter standards for drunken driving.

Rationale:

Although both statements claim that Congress has an obligation concerning drunken driving, the revised statement qualifies as a more focused thesis. The revised statement sets forth a specific point of view which limits discussion to one issue (drunken driving legislation), and makes a judgment about that issue (the legislation should make State standards stricter). Therefore, the revised thesis better prepares the reader for the argument to follow by encapsulating that argument in a single statement. Two possible thought relationships could be used to support the thesis statement: causality and exemplification. By arguing from causality, the writer would state reasons to support the claim that stricter drunken driving standards will help save lives. By arguing from exemplification, the writer could describe specific instances about vehicular accidents caused by drunken driving.

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Major Composition Elements: Development

The development of the composition should support your thesis with explicit explanations, enough examples, and relevant details to guide readers to an understanding of your ideas. Avoid irrelevant details and shifts in focus. Ask yourself the following questions to maintain focus on development:

Example:

Read the following passage, and briefly think about your reaction to it. Do you have some ideas on how you would revise the passage? Is all of the necessary information included in the paragraph, or would you need to do more research on the topic? Which statements need clarification? Do you think the sentences in the passage need to be in a different order?

Original Passage:

The focus in language teaching has shifted from the mastery of structures to communicative proficiency. Today Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has become widely accepted. CLT places major emphasis on communicative purposes of the speech act. A speaker of a language, who has knowledge of the speech act realization patterns in that language, usually knows the rules. This paper examines the characteristics of CLT, the theoretical framework, and the syllabus design for the communicative classroom.

Discussion:

This passage begins by raising interest about a shift in language teaching but then fails to build curiosity because it does not explain what caused the shift. The passage introduces jargon, specifically "Communicative Language Teaching," without using everyday concrete terms to define CLT. Also, the relationship between the language teaching shift and CLT is not clear. Further, the fourth sentence of the passage ("A speaker of a language . . . ") is irrelevant as it stands because nothing in the sentence makes an explicit connection to the topic. Although the last sentence points the reader in the general direction of the paper's development, it does not narrow the focus to a specific aspect of CLT.

Revised Passage:

The focus of language teaching has shifted from a mastery of grammatical structures to the broader concept of communicative proficiency. The shift resulted from the realization that knowledge of grammatical structures does not in itself imply the ability to use language effectively. This claim has been persuasively argued in Hume's theory of communicative competence and Halliday's functional account of language use. Such a shift in the focus of language teaching is reflected in an instructional approach called Communicative Language Teaching. CLT, with its emphasis on the communicative purposes of speech acts, has become widely accepted by learning theorists. Moreover, the CLT approach has had a strong practical influence in syllabus design for language teaching. The purpose of this paper is to examine how CLT has provided a path both to explore functional content categories for language teaching and to investigate socio-linguistic considerations as a means of developing communicative competence. This paper begins with a description of the characteristics of CLT, moves on to an analysis of CLT's theoretical foundation, and finally specifies the content of a typical CLT syllabus design.

Discussion:

The revised passage gives the reader a much better picture of the topic because:

  • No sentence introduces irrelevant details that distract attention from the topic of CLT.
  • An explanation of CLT and its function is set forth in explicit terms.
  • A specific outline of the paper is clearly indicated.

 

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Major Composition Elements: Organization

In order for readers to follow the thread of your thoughts, you must structure your ideas. If you have great ideas but are unable to present them in a logical order, you will confuse your readers.

Organizing your composition is a continuous process. First, structure your ideas into paragraphs and sequence your paragraphs into a logical flow of thoughts. When you add or delete an idea, consider how the change affects the overall composition. The revision process forces you to examine both the unity of organization and the coherence of organization.

How you organize your ideas depends on the nature of the relationship of the ideas. If you want to describe a place, use spatial order - such as from left to right, top to bottom, or near to far.

If you have several points to argue in making your case, or if you want to explain a process with a sequence of steps, it is helpful to use enumeration to signal the transition between steps. For example, if you are supporting a major point with three subordinate points, introduce the subordinate points with the simple ordinal numbers first, second, and third, or a variation such as first, next, and finally. Each paragraph should be unified with a central idea, and paragraphs should be logically ordered and connected.

Ask the following questions about organization:

Example:

Original Draft:

The information-processing model assumes that the learner selects the information to be processed and accomplishes the transformation of information to long-term memory through sequential stages from input to output. The model comprises three main stages that contain different physiological properties: the sensory registers, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

The essential first step for information to enter the processing model is the storage of incoming sensory information that is received by receptors in the form of nerve impulses before moving to short-term memory. The sensory register briefly stores representations of external stimuli from the environment until the information can be transferred to the next stage of the model.

The new information in short-term memory, by subjection to further processing, may be transferred to and made part of long-term memory if it survives the second stage of the process. Long-term memory is a relatively unlimited and permanent repository of information. Long-term memory stores for later use information that has been well processed and integrated into one's general store of knowledge. Once information is stored in the long-term memory, it stays there.

But not all information makes it into long-term memory (the third stage). The information selected and recognized in the first stage, the sensory register, if not lost, will be transferred from a rapidly decaying status to another form of temporary storage - short-term memory. This second stage of the information-processing model is limited in duration and capacity. Short-term memory can be thought of as conscious memory because it holds all the information that a person can be aware of at one time. It allows information to be manipulated, interpreted, and transformed. Unless information in short-term memory is either rehearsed or encoded, it will decay and be lost before getting a chance to be transferred into long-term memory.

Discussion:

In terms of organization, each paragraph in the original draft may be considered to have its own unity. But, the composition as a whole suffers because the writer has not organized it in such a way that would eliminate the confusing references and ordinal indicators that are needed to keep the stages out of one another's way. The draft composition needs:

  • An organizing principle that will eliminate the confusion of stage references
  • Coherence between paragraphs to smooth the flow of ideas
  • A concluding paragraph to reassert the unity of the composition

 

Revised Draft:

The information-processing model assumes that the learner selects information to be processed and accomplishes the transformation of information from input to output in sequential stages. The system comprises three main stages, each defined by different physiological properties: the sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

The essential first step for information to enter the information processing system is the storage of incoming sensory information that is received by receptors in the form of nerve impulses. This sensory register briefly stores representations of external stimuli from the environment until the information can be transferred further.

Next, the information selected and recognized in the sensory register, if not lost, will be transferred from a rapidly decaying status to another form of temporary storage - short-term memory, which is limited in duration and capacity. Short-term memory can be thought of as conscious memory because it holds all the information that a person can be aware of at one time. It allows information to be manipulated, interpreted, and transformed. Unless information in short-term memory is either rehearsed or encoded, it will decay and be lost.

Finally, the new information in short-term memory, by subjection to further processing, may be transferred to and made part of long-term memory. Long-term memory is a relatively unlimited and permanent repository of information. Long-term memory stores for later use information that has been well processed and integrated into one's general store of knowledge. Once information is stored in long-term memory, it stays there.

Although they are discrete steps with different properties, these three stages combine to make up a single information processing system. Any consideration of how this system functions should thus take into account how the parts relate to the whole.

Discussion:

The revised draft presents a better organization because:

  • The focus is removed from long-term memory alone and distributed evenly to all three stages of the system.
  • The refocusing clears the way for the composition to be developed logically.

 

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Major Composition Elements: Sentence Structure

A written composition is a collection of ideas. Every idea finds its expression in the form of a complete sentence. Ask yourself if your draft contains any of these common sentence structure errors.

Wrong: John and Sylvia in the park one fine day.
Right: John and Sylvia jogged in the park one fine Spring day.

Wrong: Three roses leans at a slant against the window.
Right: Three roses lean at a slant against the window.

Wrong: I will be in the store yesterday.
Right: I was in the store yesterday.

Wrong: The company sold their products overseas.
Right: The company sold its products overseas.

Wrong: The congressman spoke with his wife and his secretary, and then asked her to wait.
Right: The congressman spoke with his wife and his secretary, and then asked his secretary to wait.

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Major Composition Elements: Use of Words

Meanings are embedded in words. Use words that are proper and effective. Avoid wordiness and vagueness. Although mistakes in spelling may not break down the communication with readers, they do send negative signals to readers about your attitude toward your composition and also toward your audience.

Examine each word in your composition individually. Use the dictionary, and if you are using word processing software, use the spell-checker. Consider the following questions:

Bad: The train's head honcho deadheaded from New York to Boston and then prepared himself for dinner quick as a whistle.

Better: The train's engineer traveled as a passenger from New York to Boston and then quickly got ready for dinner.

Bad: (Job applicant's cover letter) Bosses frequently praise my work.

Better: Supervisors frequently praise my work.

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Major Composition Elements: Punctuation

The elements of punctuation, like the pauses and gestures used in conversation, help readers identify how segments of information are broken up. Pay special attention to any long or complex sentences. Ask yourself the following questions:

Wrong: I wanted to know what time it was?
Right: I wanted to know what time it was.

Wrong: The teacher looked straight into the eyes of the unruly student and told him to be quiet!
Right: The teacher looked straight into the eyes of the unruly student and then uttered two sharp words: Be quiet!

Wrong: The poet walked out the door and, when he realized it was cold outside, wished he had put on a jacket, even though his jacket was not very warm.
Right: The poet walked out the door. It was cold outside. He wished he had put on his jacket, even though his jacket was not very warm.

Wrong: The soldier carried a rifle backpack and shovel.
Right: The soldier carried a rifle, backpack, and shovel.

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Major Composition Elements: Documentation Style

When you cite the writing of others or use the ideas of others in your writing, you must document these citations with enough information for others to locate the sources. Two major documentation styles are MLA (Modern Language Association) and APA (American Psychological Association).

The MLA publishes a style manual used primarily by scholars in literature and the humanities called MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. There is also a Web site for MLA style at: http://www.mla.org

To use APA format, consult the Publication Manual of the APA. It provides extensive examples covering a wide variety of citation formats. This reference material is also on line at the following Web site: http://www.psychwww.com/resource/apacrib.htm

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you are making revisions:

Wrong: "It can be defined as tasks assigned to students by school teachers that are meant to be carried out during non-school hours."
Right: "It can be defined as tasks assigned to students by school teachers that are meant to be carried out during non-school hours" (Cooper & Nye, 1994).

Wrong: Cooper, H. & Ney, B. Homework for students with learning disability: The implications of research for policy and practice.
Right: Cooper, H. & Ney, B. Homework for students with learning disability: The implications of research for policy and practice. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27, 470-479.