Expectations of Student Writing: Great or Grating?

Drafted by Shaily Menon, Updated by Lindsay Ellis

Writing for Clarity

The meaning of any prose is not that which the writer intends, but that which readers interpret. Readers do not just read prose; they interpret it. Readers interpret prose more easily and more uniformly if the information is placed where they expect to find it.

"Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought." Gopen and Swan, 1990.

Five expectations that readers have:

  • Readers expect sentences to tell a story: "People do things."
  • Readers expect that the key story elements, character and action, should correspond to the key sentence elements, subject and verb.
  • Readers expect the action in the verb.
  • Readers expect central characters to appear as the subjects of verbs.
  • Readers expect "old information" before "new information" as the story proceeds.

For example, consider which of the following sentences meet reader expectations:

  • Once upon a time, there was Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma, the Woodsman, and the Wolf.
  • Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place, a jump out from behind a tree occurred, causing fright.
  • Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf's jump out from behind a tree occurred, causing fright in Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods, when the wolf jumped out from behind a tree and frightened her.

Thus, if students understand their role as readers then they would become better writers.

Students would profit from analyzing examples of good and bad writing.

Since their own writing and that of their peers is the most relevant to students, what better source for examples of good and bad writing&(see below)

The main ideas in this handout are from Gopen, G. and J. Swan. 1990. The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist 78(6): 550-558 and from a presentation based on this article, by Marty Patton and Steve Lombardo of University of Missouri-Columbia, at the Summer Institute on Writing in the Sciences, Michigan State University, June 2001. See also Williams, Joseph. 1995. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press. 

For examples and practice, see the Duke University Scientific Writing Resource

Examples of student writing, BIO 338 Environmental Ethics

  • More important than the problems global warming causes, finding a way to stop this destruction of the earth. Possibly even finding a way to fix the problem. Lots of money is donated or given by the government to scientists to research ways to stop and fix this disastrous problem.
  • In Tokyo, an experiment was done to see if surface temperatures from global warming affected the metropolitan area (Dapaah-Siakwan 1999). Tokyo Bay was the surface temperature that was being tested. It was found that the high air temperature was affecting the surface temperature.
  • Since the beginning of settlers in America, we as people have been cutting down entire forests at a time, killing animals because we fear what they might do, we want part of there body, or to get rid of a species, be it human or non-human.
  • When species become to low in numbers or disappear from an area the whole system is thrown out of whack. If the animal is a predator the animals it eats populations increase rapidly which takes its toll their food source and so on down the line.
  • Our fishery management system must be reformed to ensure management decisions are not only based on the best available science, but that they also build in sufficient buffers against inadvertent overfishing.
  • Being that these problems have been found to effect some parts of wildlife, scientists are concerned on how they might effect the human species.
  • Everyday when you watch the news there is a report on something that is population oriented. Population is more than just the people that surround us; it is also the effects of the people around us.
  • One hundred and fifty years later, the dream that once exemplified opportunity is now perverted by rampant materialism and hyperconsumerism. The prevailing American Dream, with its high per capita consumption of resources, not only is failing to improve our sense of well-being but also threatening global sustainability.
  • The growth of the population, air, water and solid and hazardous waste are environmental issues that need development and concern. These issues need to be more under control, if not, people will die from illness that could have been prevented by the surroundings of our public involving our health.
  • I believe that a ban on deer baiting or feeding in Michigan will prove beneficial to the states deer population and will only affect non-serious hunters who do not take the time and patience to effectively scout their areas prior to the hunting season.
  • Another reason that should deter us from using genetically engineered foods is the production of super viruses and super bacteria.
  • Although there would be some positive outcomes to the additional wells, I believe that protecting the Great Lakes as a natural resource far outweighs any possible benefits for using them as an oil source.

Page last modified December 4, 2017