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Seven Traits of Good Writing


Q. I hear my child's teacher talk about the "Seven Traits" or "Six Plus One Traits" in writing instruction. I'm confused; what does that mean?


At first, they identified six traits of good writing, and shortly thereafter, a seventh popped up, so often you will see them referred to as "Six + 1 Traits" of writing.


These traits, so often taught in schools, are fine and practical. But they have been criticized because, in the hands of average or poor teachers, children end up able to write only average or poor compositions, and seem stuck in a formula based on these seven traits, instead of free to fly with their own style of writing, learning from their own mistakes and missteps.


But oh, well: a so-so, steady, careful, non-risk-taking, formulaic composition is better than a terrible, disorganized, badly misspelled one that makes no sense.


If your child's teacher uses the word "rubric" in referring to a piece of writing by your child, that just means how well your child's writing was scored based on those traits. Usually, they'll be assessed on the seven traits and given a score on each trait of from 0 to 5, or some such scale.


Don't worry about the score; it's basically meaningless, as the people who assess these pieces of writing are low-skilled writers themselves and not really qualified to evaluate writing, or employed within the school system, so it behooves them to give the kids high scores and make the schools look good. It's a PR thing, just like most of outcome-based education.


When a real, live writer - such as moi - scores these writing samples, the "rubric" looks a lot different, believe me. That's why our former district only asked me to volunteer to score writing samples once. I was too good at it, so I was never asked again. But that's OK; I don't think they're terrible, just not as great as most of the educators who use them think they are.


These "seven traits" came about along with other forms of standardization in our schools, when the federal education legislation, Goals 2000, and its descendant, No Child Left Behind, transformed schools into places that needed to conform to "specifications." They aren't all bad; to the extent that the "seven traits" improved writing where it needed to be improved - the lower half of the student population - they are helpful. Much of the writing appears to plod along and you can practically see the student mentally checking off each of the traits, to make sure the writing conforms to all seven. Sigh. The damage done to the upper half of the learning curve is yet to be seen. Stay tuned.


Here they are:


Ideas: The overall message and meaning; content; ideas are strong when they are clear and focused, and move from the general to the specific.


Organization: Structuring information so that it makes sense to the reader and conveys a clear message.


Voice: Style that displays the writer's passion and purpose, asserting that his or her ideas are worth paying attention to, and winning reader engagement.


Word Choice: Sentences that flow with color and power: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, contractions, gerunds, and so on, that unite in a piece of writing the same way that paint unites in a work of art. 


Sentence Fluency: How the writing "reads" - the rhythm and musicality of the prose.


Conventions: Here's where many schools slip and fall, since correct writing is the only writing worth reading. But often, schools sacrifice accuracy in the writing - much less perfection - if the student is at least able to get some decent ideas down on paper.


Presentation: Good, old-fashioned handwriting, and conformities of printed text come into play. We're looking for white space, neat letter formation and spacing, no evidence of strikeouts or erasures, and an overall pleasing, professional look. 


Homework: Here are some great exercises from the Web English Teacher on 6 + 1 Traits:


By Susan Darst Williams Writing 02 2008


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