"[I]t is a universal rule of life that we should wish to copy what we approve in others. It is for this reason that musicians take the voices of their teachers, painters the works of their predecessors, and [farmers] the principles of agriculture which have been proved in practice, as models for their imitation. In fact, we may note that the elementary study of every branch of learning is directed by reference to some definite standard that is placed before the learner. We must, in fact, either be like or unlike those who have proved their excellence."
— Quintilian, Book X, Institutes of Oratory
One way to help students improve writing is to provide models—meaning examples—of finished products. Definitions of good writing abound and can vary considerably from discipline to discipline and from one professor to another. Models clarify what you, as a representative of your academic discipline, consider the qualities of good writing.
Find Appropriate Models
Produce models yourself. Since it is good practice to try out your own writing assignments, you might produce models specifically for your class, use your published work, or work in progress. One goal of a writing instructor is to demystify the writing process. Students should understand that even very good writers labor over content, style, organization, readability, and so on. When you provide a sample of your own writing, students can query you about your choices and your finished product.
Find published work by professional writers meant for a professional audience. The best examples will be those most like what you want students to aim for. The only caveat is that they should be models of good writing since not all published work is exemplary. It is also helpful if they are short and not so complicated that they seem unattainable to students.
Photocopy exemplary student writing. When you come across an example of student writing that is particularly well-written, you can share it with other students. However, avoid using negative examples, as most students will hesitate to give permission if they know you plan to use student writing to exemplify poor writing—and not telling them of your intent would be unfair. Furthermore, students will learn as much from positive as from negative analysis. No piece of writing, your own included, is so perfect that constructive criticism cannot be aimed at it. It's best to ask all students to sign a release form at the beginning of the semester granting permission to use their work for teaching purposes. Note that if you wish to quote their work in an article on teaching, you'll need specific permission.
Keep a file of models from previous semesters. Sometimes it is easier for students to provide honest criticism if they know their peers have not written the model you are examining. It is still best to keep these as mainly positive examples, lest students feel you may single their work out as well. While using examples from past classes does not give you the license to be harsh or to ridicule, you can be a bit more frank in your assessment.
Do a Rhetorical Analysis
Analyze the model's rhetoric to guide your assignment, your instruction, and your assessment. The rhetorical analysis is the means by which you make explicit what you, as an writer in your discipline, know tacitly. Once you have made the features of the model explicit, you will know what to emphasize in teaching. Although you can do a rhetorical analysis of a document, a speech, a video, or anything that addresses an audience, I'll limit this discussion to documents. The basics are similar, but the particulars of design or style will differ.
First, establish the rhetorical situation. The first step in a rhetorical analysis is to evaluate the rhetorical situation the model addresses. Any document responds to a rhetorical situation. That means it can be considered in the light of three basic elements: its writer, its audience, and its topic.
- The writer will have a reason for writing, a claim to make, or a purpose such as informing, explaining, expressing, or entertaining.
- The audience is reading for its own purposes and brings to the reading expectations about what is appropriate in a given type of document. The audience would expect a business memo to be professional in tone, informative, and concise, for example .
- The topic, what we often think of as content, is affected by the rhetorical situation, too. The way we approach the topic, the depth we go into, the type or level of evidence for an argument or detail for an exposition, for example, is influenced by the writer's purpose, the audience's purpose, and the expectations for any given genre.
Documents that focus mostly on the writer have an expressive purpose—the writer wants to share his or her views, as in a journal or a manifesto. When the focus is on the audience, the purpose is persuasive—the writer wants the audience to do something (often seen in advertising or argument). A document that focuses on the topic is informative or expository—the writer wants the audience to know something, as is often the case in scientific or technical writing.
You might be surprised how much understanding a document’s rhetorical situation can help students decide how to approach it. Knowing, for example, that readers of a scientific journal article are looking for the results of an experiment so they can judge its quality and significance, they’ll have a better sense of what to include and what level of style to use. Even if this seems evident to you, your students may not have considered that the rhetorical situation shapes their composing.
Next, establish the features of document design. Look at your model and break it down into parts. The basic guiding question for analyzing document design is this: How is the document designed to meet reader expectations and conform to genre type? Does it violate any expectations? Review the following:
- Heading style
- Spacing (including white space)
You can usually go a bit deeper than introduction, body, conclusion. If there is an argument, note the placement of the thesis and follow the chain of reasoning and evidence. If there are headings, pay attention to their function in guiding the reader. For example, a scientific research article generally includes an abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion, implications, and references section, although there could be slight variation. If there is variation, why? Is the variation specific to the article's purpose? A quirk of the writer? A feature of the genre?
Last, establish the document’s basic style.
To analyze the style, ask the following question: What elements of the grammar, usage, diction, and paragraph structure contribute to achieving the document’s rhetorical purpose? Consider these basic elements:
- Diction (Word Choice)
- Documentation style
How long are the sentences? Do they tend to be simple, compound, complex, or a mixture of these? In academic writing, it’s common for them to range in length from short to long, but mostly in the middle, and to be more complex than simple. Most academic articles have fairly long paragraphs that tend to be organized around a topic sentence. In word choice, you might want to consider the use of jargon and whether words are colloquial (everyday) or more formal. Grammar can be examined in areas like use of informal contractions (not used in much scholarly writing), in the point-of-view, (the use of I
), and in active or passive voice. Don’t just assume that the “rules" always hold. Examine your model. The real situation is often more complex than rules suggest. On documentation styles, it’s helpful to note when a style differs from the MLA style students used in high school or English classes. For example, in many disciplines, the dates are important, so internal citations highlight the date and not just the author. Also the use of direct quotes is very rare in some writing. Look at how internal citations are worked into the text, what kind of verbs are used to introduce the work of others, and how and if direct quotations are used.
You can use the information you get from a rhetorical analysis to design an assignment, create a rubric for assessment, and guide instruction to prepare students to write. That’s because the rhetorical analysis helps you see the features you need to teach. In the assignment, make sure you describe the rhetorical situation. For instruction, bring the model to class and analyze it rhetorically. Finally, for the assessment, decide which of these features are most crucial and make sure you are evaluating those in your rubric.
One problem that can arise when students work from models is that they simply copy it. A few precautions can mitigate this tendency.
Remind students what models are for: they present one way of achieving a rhetorical purpose, but there are others. They may present good writing, but seldom is a model perfect; in fact it may leave considerable room for improvement.
When available, use models of professional, published writing of the kind you want produced instead of using student models. True, they may seem more out of reach, but they also provide a realistic target.
Use more than one model. Keep the models in the same genre (document type) and mode (argument, exposition, persuasion, etc.), but try to show that authors may achieve the same purpose in different ways.
Don’t just present the model—comment on it. Discuss options, alternatives, and the writer’s choices. Put it on an overhead and spend 10 minutes taking about it, or put it on the web and use the “insert comments” function in Microsoft word to add your observations.
Present models that do different things for different audiences, so students will become more rhetorically sophisticated and more able to make writerly choices.
If you do decide to use a student's paper as a model, you should have him or her sign a permission form
Edward P. J. Corbett's Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 3rd. ed. NY: Oxford U P 1990.
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston maintains a model bank for common types of documents.