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WOC 017 Understanding the Traits of Writing

Teacher Tips and Answers


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Student Dreams of Getting to School

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Understanding the Traits of Writing

What makes a great sousaphone solo? Well, the player needs to hit the right notes in the right rhythm. Loud parts should be loud, and soft parts soft. The tone of the sousaphone should fit the solo, and the whole piece should be expressive and impressive. That’s a lot of traits!

Great writing has a similar set of traits. The ideas need to be engaging, and the organization effective. The voice should connect with readers and achieve the purpose. Well-chosen words and clear, varied sentences also help. And, of course, the writing should follow the rules of English. This chapter will guide you through the traits!

What’s Ahead

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Quick Guide Traits

Effective writing has the following traits. The first trait—ideas—is the most important. The whole reason to write is to communicate your ideas. All of the other traits work to convey your ideas.

Ideas ■ Effective writing has an interesting topic and a clear focus. Varied details support and develop this focus. The writing achieves its purpose, whether to inform, persuade, narrate, or entertain.

Organization ■ Strong writing orients the reader in the beginning, develops ideas in the middle, and wraps up ideas in the ending. Paragraphs follow a clear order, and sentences use an effective pattern of organization.

Voice ■ The voice represents the writer well and connects with the reader. It has an appropriate formality for the topic, and it achieves the purpose of the writing. The voice is confident and engaging.

Word Choice ■ Specific nouns and active verbs make the writing precise and energetic. Modifiers clarify meaning. Words have the correct denotation (dictionary meaning) and connotation (word association).

Sentence Fluency ■ Well-formed sentences express ideas clearly and effectively. Sentences vary in their beginnings, lengths, and complexity, creating a rhythm that keeps the reader reading.

Conventions ■ Effective writing follows the rules of punctuation, capitalization, spelling, usage, and grammar. Editing has made the work error-free, clearing away any obstacles to understanding.

Helpful Hint

In prewriting, you focus on ideas and organization. In writing, you add voice. When revising, you also include words and sentences. At editing, you focus on conventions.

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The Traits in Action

On the next three pages, student writing examples illustrate the effective use of each trait.

Ideas Light Bulb

Ideas ■

Effective writing has an interesting topic and fascinating details. In the following passage, Steve Willingham asks a common question and arrives at some uncommon answers.

How big are you? You’re probably just four to six feet tall, but you have about 17 feet of intestines, 46 miles of neurons, and about 60,000 miles of blood vessels. That’s big! What’s more, your brain has about 100 billion neurons, one for every star in the Milky Way Galaxy. In fact, the human brain is the most complex natural system that scientists have ever discovered. So if you ever feel small, remember, you’re huge!

Discussion: Steve engages the reader by asking a question and then provides interesting facts, all leading to an uplifting conclusion.

Organization Files

Organization ■

Good writing is easy to follow because it is organized from beginning to end. In the following passage, Anna Hernandez carefully explains, step by step, what happens when a person stops smoking.

When someone stops smoking, the body immediately begins to clean itself. During the first 24 hours, the levels of nicotine and carbon monoxide in the bloodstream rapidly drop. Without nicotine, the heart rate decreases, blood vessels no longer constrict unnaturally, and blood pressure is lowered. And without carbon monoxide, the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream increases. After a few days, a smoker’s chronic cough begins to clear up, although coughing may continue for a few weeks. . . .

Discussion: Anna uses linking phrases like “During the first 24 hours” and “After a few days” to help the reader follow the organization.

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Voice Megaphone

Voice ■

A writer’s voice reveals personality, interest, and connection to the reader. Josie Phillips’s voice conveys excitement and awe, inviting the reader to discover a mysterious wonder.

In the White Mountains of eastern California, a path leads up through a parched landscape to a pine grove that holds a secret: Methuselah is a 4,855-year-old bristlecone. It started growing before the Great Pyramid was built, while mammoths still roamed Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea. To protect this ancient wonder, the U.S. forestry service refuses to tell precisely where Methuselah lives. . . .

Discussion: Josie’s voice reveals her interest in the topic, an interest that becomes contagious. She unfolds her ideas gradually to draw the reader in.

Word Choice Arrows

Word Choice ■

Good writing contains specific nouns, verbs, and modifiers. In the following passage, Guerdy Pierre discusses special African headgear. As you will see, she pays special attention to the words that she uses.

Headgear carries importance in many African cultures. Some types identify the wearer’s valued trade, such as blacksmithing; other types signify royalty. Chiefs in the Kongo kingdom, for example, have adorned special caps (ngunda or mpu) to highlight their lofty status. To create these caps, Kongo artists traditionally work with cotton thread or with threads carefully stripped from palm-leaf fibers. The artists wrap or loop the threads in a spiral weave to form the cap. Then they use dyed thread to add a repeating geometric pattern around the cap. . . .

Discussion: Note how Guerdy uses specific verbs—identify, signify, adorn, strip, wrap, and so on. Also note the effective use of adjectives—“valued trade,” “spiral weave,” “dyed thread,” “repeating geometric pattern,” and so on.

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Sentence Fluency Snake

Sentence Fluency ■

Effective writing flows smoothly from sentence to sentence. In the following passage, Bryce McCain pays attention to sentence variety when describing a special Japanese art form called manga.

Manga (whimsical pictures) are taking over the world. These serialized Japanese comics developed throughout the 1800s, became a sales juggernaut in the 1950s, and now have captured 76 percent of the comic book market in the U.S. Most manga are published in black and white, which makes them easy to create and cheap to print. Storylines in every imaginable genre hook readers and keep them coming back for more. Worldwide, manga earn more than $1 billion per year. . . .

Discussion: Notice how Bryce varies his sentence beginnings and lengths. The longest sentence contains 29 words, and the shortest ones contains 8 words.

Conventions Ruler

Conventions ■

Good writing is carefully edited for conventions (punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar) and presentation (arrangement on the page). In the following paragraph, Michael Curry pays careful attention to conventions.

Scientists in Venezuela have discovered the remains of a buffalo-sized rodent that lived eight million years ago. The remains were found in Urumaco, a small town west of Caracas, the nation’s capital. One scientist claims that during the late Miocene epoch, the Urumaco region was the land of giants. Along with “Guinea-zilla,” huge turtles, crocodiles, and fish inhabited the area. . . .

Discussion: Notice how the well-placed commas control the flow of ideas. Also notice that all proper nouns are capitalized, and a special word, “Guinea-zilla,” is set off by quotation marks.

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Connecting the Process and the Traits

You can’t keep track of six traits all at once, and you don’t have to. At the start of the process, you focus on ideas. Then you decide how to organize them. When you are drafting, you organize ideas using an effective voice. In revising, you review these three traits with words and sentences. Finally, in editing, you check conventions.

Process-Traits Chart


Ideas ■

  • What topic should I write about?
  • What part of the topic should I focus on?
  • What details should I include?

Organization ■

  • How should I organize my details?
  • Which graphic organizer should I use for my planning?


Ideas ■

  • What do I want to say?

Organization ■

  • How do I want to arrange my ideas?

Voice ■

  • How do I want to sound?


Ideas ■

  • Are my ideas clear and complete?

Organization ■

  • Does each part work well?

Voice ■

  • Have I used the most appropriate voice?

Word Choice ■

  • Have I used specific nouns and active verbs?

Sentence Fluency ■

  • Are my sentences varied? Do they read smoothly?


Conventions ■

  • Have I used correct punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and grammar?


All Traits ■

  • Have I used the traits effectively?

Conventions ■

  • Does my design make my ideas clear?

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