Writing to inform
(Last updated: 27 September 2018)
Essays are written to inform. Essentially, the written material that you provide conveys information from you, the writer/author to other persons, usually a professor or instructor, and sometimes peers and colleagues. Even the loosest of writing projects, like the personal essay or creative non-fiction assignments, are responsible for a transfer of information.
What many new writers do not understand, and despite low marks, some are never informed or ever realise, that all academic writing hangs on the presentation of clear and accurate information. The vast majority of essays are written to inform. These essays can be used to inform readers on seemingly factual information; the life cycle of a fruit-fly, for instance. But even a writing prompt that involves taking a position (e.g. ‘what is your view of Brexit?’ or ‘Coffee in the morning: how much is too much?’) makes an underlying request for information.
So, what can you do to ensure that you receive the highest marks on informational writing assignments?
First, follow the conventions. Conventions in writing, especially academic writing, are a form of politeness. It seems strange, no doubt, but presenting your essay in a way that does not stand out is a way of telling readers (i.e. professors) that you respect them as readers of your essay and want to make the process of reading your work as straightforward and comfortable possible.
This means, basically, not going rogue with your formatting or structure. Standard fonts and margins, usually apply here. You should have a title that tells the reader what the essay is about, usual identification markers. Sure, this all sounds like no-brainer stuff, but you would be astounded at the number of students that hand in essays that want their work to stand apart under the assumption that doing so will garner a higher mark. Turning in an essay written in comic sans will not help your grade! If all the essays written for the course were laid out on a table, at a glance none of them should look much different from the others.
A further convention that you want to follow is that of structure. In a academic writing all discussion of structure works on three levels. First, there is the sentence structure. Second, we have the paragraph structure. Third and lastly, we have the essay structure. In longer forms of work, a thesis for instance, we might talk about the structure of particular sections, but for the most part the same points as that of essay structure apply.
Let’s look at each of these.
If you are writing to inform your primary objective is to convey information in a clear and straightforward way. This amounts to writing sentences that are clear and straightforward. Many students are often concerned with notions of style and will assume that the more they write like Henry James (or James Joyce!) the better their writing is.
But what is style? A writing style is basically just the way you control the presentation of information and ideas in your writing. When it comes to conveying information the longer a sentence becomes, often the more cumbersome the information. One of the conventions of a clear writing style is thus to vary your sentence length. It can have a stronger impact on the reader to use 2-4 shortish sentences and then a long one, instead of a series of all long or short sentences. Even just thinking of reading either of those seems tedious.
You will also want to consider your word choices. Does the vocabulary fit the topic? Do you repeat or overuse any key words or expressions. Have you used archaisms unnecessarily? At any rate, the first place you want to strive for clarity. Not surprisingly, in writing to inform, students in maths and science are often able to write the most clearly.
All sentences grouped around one main idea form a paragraph which is separated from other groups of sentences. Each paragraph needs to be about one thing, and you should indicate what that one thing is in the first, or less often, second sentence (so-called topic sentences). The remaining sentences support the statement made by the topic sentence. The final sentence usually transitions to the next paragraph idea.
Lastly, we have the structure of the essay as a whole. Basically, you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. And each of these sections needs to feel and read like a beginning, a middle, and an end. But these sections are more commonly referred to as an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The simplest way to think of these sections in an essay and their functions is like this: tell your readers what you plan to tell them (introduction), then tell the readers what you need to tell them (body), then tell your readers what you have told them (conclusion). It really is that simple. Essentially, this kind of structure in essays is a way of packaging information so that it can be best understood. There is content and form, structure provides the form, and the two work together. Good content in a poorly structured essay is not an effective way of informing readers.
Within the essay you need to ensure a logical continuity of thought. If you are informing readers about, for instance, the relationship between salt intake and physical health, you do not want to make a foray into the history of salt, its production in India, how Bede left a small packet to his brother monks when he died (because it was so rare), and so on. All of this could be informative, but it is not relevant to the topic. When writing to inform you absolutely must make it a priority to stay focused and on task, no matter how tempting or interesting any asides might be.
Nevertheless, you do want to provide, in as much as it may matter, an overall understanding of the issue at hand. If the task is to provide a overall information, and not just a position or argument, you will want to take a more balanced approach. This can be particularly challenging when discussing divisive or galvanising political, religious, or social issues. One of the things that you should strive for in your academic writing, whether you are writing to inform or put forward an argument, is objectivity. When presenting other positions or contrary arguments, it is best to take a clear, neutral, and factual approach. And where you might disagree, never attack or denounce a person directly.
You want to give readers as much information as possible; however, you want to present the information in a way that is clear and accessible. One of the standard models for this kind of ‘delivery’ is the baking recipe. When looking at a recipe there is usually a short and relevant introduction to what is being baked. Then a step by step guide for how to reproduce the dish. All of the information is expressed in a clear and ordered way, and a recipe limits itself to the most important facts. Nothing extraneous.
Additionally, something that helps is to keep as much of your essay in the present tense as you can. This can be especially strange when you are talking about someone who is dead. Still, “Shakespeare says in Hamlet” is more vivid and feels more relevant than “Shakespeare said…”.
Mind the G.A.P.
One helpful acronym for informative writing is keeping in mind your Genre, Audience, and Purpose (GAP).
- The Genre is simply the kind of informational writing you will do. Are you explaining how something works or describing how something works? The two are not necessarily the same thing, and the information that you provide readers should be keyed to the genre in which you are writing. One of the stand outs for an informational essay is facts. You will want to include lots of facts and data in your essay, and prefer these over arguments and opinions (unless the arguments and opinions are part of your facts).
- The Audience is often a strange thing for students to think about. Even people who think about and teach academic writing for a profession find the notion of audience strange, since who a writer envisions as an audience is a fictional construction. And though you may write for a general audience, often only an instructor or marker is going to read the work. Still, for an informational essay, the easiest audience to imagine is one where anybody can pick up your essay and understand it and benefit from having read it.
- And the Purpose. This is also often silly, since the purpose is to get a good grade. Still, the purpose of providing information is to inform, and in some ways, to teach. If you think of yourself not as a writer but as an information provider (like a tour guide) then your essay will be set on the right path.
And if you aren’t certain about what goes into an informative essay we recommend acquiring a model essay to serve you as a guide.
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