illustration of boy writing

The five features of effective writing

By Kathleen Cali and Kim Bowen

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

We teach children how to read books but not how to read their own writing…Unless we show children how to read their own writing, their work will not improve.”

— Donald Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing

At the beginning of the year, one of us asks our sophomores what aspect of their writing they would most like to improve. Inevitably, some respond “I want to improve my handwriting,” or “I don’t know how to use commas.” Certainly penmanship and punctuation are important, but what have we done to make students think that these are the most important aspects of writing?

Teaching writing is hard and often frustrating. For decades, teachers have assigned writing, graded it, and watched pages covered in red ink stuffed into the backs of notebooks, never to be read again. Many teachers will admit to being uncomfortable teaching writing in the first place: while early grades teacher education programs spend hours upon hours on teaching reading, they spend far less time on teaching writing, and secondary teachers may have no preparation for this work at all. Students, too, can easily grow frustrated as they are asked to write more and are assessed more thoroughly on their writing than ever before, but don’t see a reward for their work. More writing, as we all know, is not necessarily better writing.

Part of the difficulty in teaching and learning writing is that few tasks involve so many complex, interwoven layers as writing. Composing a piece of written communication demands an understanding of the content, knowledge of the audience and the context, and the ability to use appropriate conventions for that audience and context.

Teaching writing, learning writing, and editing our own writing is easier when we break apart these layers. This is why North Carolina now bases its writing assessments on five Features of Effective Writing. By focusing on what is most important in a piece of written communication, these features not only provide teachers with a more objective set of criteria for assessing writing; they also provide students with a framework for reading and improving their own writing.

What are the Features of Effective Writing?

The five Features of Effective Writing are focus, organization, support and elaboration, style, and conventions.

Focus is the topic/subject established by the writer in response to the writing task. The writer must clearly establish a focus as he/she fulfills the assignment of the prompt. If the writer retreats from the subject matter presented in the prompt or addresses it too broadly, the focus is weakened. The writer may effectively use an inductive organizational plan which does not actually identify the subject matter at the beginning and may not literally identify the subject matter at all. The presence, therefore, of a focus must be determined in light of the method of development chosen by the writer. If the reader is confused about the subject matter, the writer has not effectively established a focus. If the reader is engaged and not confused, the writer probably has been effective in establishing a focus.
Organization is the progression, relatedness, and completeness of ideas. The writer establishes for the reader a well-organized composition, which exhibits a constancy of purpose through the development of elements forming an effective beginning, middle, and end. The response demonstrates a clear progression of related ideas and/or events and is unified and complete.
Support and Elaboration
Support and Elaboration is the extension and development of the topic/subject. The writer provides sufficient elaboration to present the ideas and/or events clearly. Two important concepts in determining whether details are supportive are the concepts of relatedness and sufficiency. To be supportive of the subject matter, details must be related to the focus of the response. Relatedness has to do with the directness of the relationship that the writer establishes between the information and the subject matter. Supporting details should be relevant and clear. The writer must present his/her ideas with enough power and clarity to cause the support to be sufficient. Effective use of concrete, specific details strengthens the power of the response. Insufficiency is often characterized by undeveloped details, redundancy, and the repetitious paraphrasing of the same point. Sufficiency has less to do with amount than with the weight or power of the information that is provided.
Style is the control of language that is appropriate to the purpose, audience, and context of the writing task. The writer’s style is evident through word choice and sentence fluency. Skillful use of precise, purposeful vocabulary enhances the effectiveness of the composition through the use of appropriate words, phrases and descriptions that engage the audience. Sentence fluency involves using a variety of sentence styles to establish effective relationships between and among ideas, causes, and/or statements appropriate to the task.
Conventions involve correctness in sentence formation, usage, and mechanics. The writer has control of grammatical conventions that are appropriate to the writing task. Errors, if present, do not impede the reader’s understanding of the ideas conveyed.

Where did the Features originate?

The North Carolina Writing Assessment began in the 1990s by scoring student writing on four criteria: main idea, support and elaboration, organization, and coherence. With the 1999 revision to the English Language Arts Standard Course of Study, the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction reevaluated this assessment. With input from educators, DPI adopted a new rubric that matches the new curriculum, meets concerns of community and business leaders, and incorporates contemporary approaches to teaching and evaluating writing. Several other states use similar models in teaching and assessing student writing.

How do the Features help teachers?

Integrating the Features of Effective Writing into the planning, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing phases of the writing process helps teachers to improve their writing instruction by:

  • Providing objective criteria for assessing student writing. When faced with a stack of papers to grade, teachers often slip into focusing on surface details or aspects of writing that are easiest to grade. The Features help teachers to focus their comments, conferences, and direct instruction on the most critical features of effective writing.
  • Focusing direct writing instruction and conferences on the right feature at the right time. Rather than teaching a strict sequence of composition and grammar lessons throughout the year, teachers can provide students with flexible instruction in the appropriate feature when they need it most during the writing process. Teachers can teach lessons on focus and organization when students are planning their writing. During revision, teachers can provide lessons on support and elaboration or style, or, if necessary, review focus or organization. Lessons on conventions can be reserved for the editing phase of the writing process, as students prepare their work for sharing or publication.
  • Giving equal weight (and equal instructional priority) to each feature. Focus and style are often neglected in writing lessons, while conventions and organizations are widely taught — sometimes to excess. By giving equal weight to the five Features, teachers can ensure that students receive the instruction they need to improve all aspects of their writing.

How do the Features help students?

The Features of Effective Writing can help students to become better writers by:

  • Allowing students to focus their attention on just one feature at a time. By reducing the cognitive demands of writing, students can focus on the aspect of writing that is most important at each step of the writing process.
  • Providing students with more opportunities to succeed by focusing on areas of strength as well as weakness. Evaluating student writing with five distinct scores helps students to see themselves as multidimensional writers, with weaknesses and strengths. Students who are poor spellers can be recognized for the quality of their ideas, while perfect spellers may realize that correct writing is not necessarily interesting writing. Students can learn to recognize their strengths and work to improve their areas of weakness.
  • Making expectations visible to students. When students know the criteria by which they will be evaluated, they no longer have to rely on the teacher to make judgments about the quality of their writing. They can instead use the Features to revise their writing continually.
  • Teaching students to become critical readers of their own writing. Students who are taught to diagnose and correct their own writing problems are on their way to becoming self-regulated, independent writers. By providing instructional support, including demonstrations of writing strategies, writing “think-alouds,” guided practice in small-group settings, conferences with teacher and peers, and opportunities to transfer strategies to new contexts and genres of writing, teachers can move students toward independence.
  • Teaching students to become critical readers of the writing of others. Students can use the Features to evaluate their peers&38217; writing in order to give constructive feedback during conferences. Students can also learn to read critically and evaluate the writing of professional authors and to appropriate their techniques.

What research says about the Features

North Carolina’s model of five Features of Effective Writing is similar to another model, the Six Plus One Traits of Writing, on which there has been significant recent research. Several studies show that the quality of writing improves when students are taught to use this model to evaluate their writing. In a study in Oregon, three fifth-grade classrooms where teachers taught the Six Traits as part of the writing process were compared to three classrooms in which students learned only the process. Students in the Six Traits classrooms scored higher on the state writing assessment than students in the process-only classrooms.

These preliminary results are confirmed by earlier research showing that teaching writing scales such as the Features of Effective Writing or the Six Traits improves the quality of students’ writing. In his meta-analysis of twenty-five years of writing research, George Hillocks (1986) concluded that writing scales were the most effective way to improve student writing.

Research also shows the importance of integrating direct instruction into the writing process. Studies of classroom instructional modes have revealed that classrooms using an “environmental” mode of instruction, in which direct instruction was integrated into the writing process, were much more effective than classrooms that used the writing process alone. Unlike the “natural process” classrooms, which were characterized by low teacher input (a lack of direct instruction and guidance) and high student input, environmental classrooms were characterized by high input from both teachers and students, including both direct instruction and guided practice in small groups. The least effective classrooms, characterized by high teacher input and low student input, focused on teaching traditional grammar and provided students with few opportunities to evaluate or revise their own writing.

Another study of effective language arts instruction in high schools, conducted by researchers at the National Center for English Learning Achievement, confirmed that teachers in higher achieving schools were more likely to teach skills in context, while teachers in more typical schools tended to teach skills in isolation with few opportunities for students to practice them in authentic contexts.

Other studies support teaching students specific procedures for diagnosing and correcting their own writing problems. In studies of procedural facilitation, students were taught to evaluate their writing using question cards that helped them compare their writing to their original purpose, to diagnose any problems, and to operate to fix the problems to match their purpose (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1987). Researchers have also successfully used cognitive strategy instruction and self-regulated strategy development to teach struggling writers procedures for planning and reviewing their writing (Harris and Graham, 1992).


Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Graves, Donald (1994). A Fresh Look at Writing. New York: Heinemann.

Harris, Karen & Graham, Steve (1992). Helping young writers master the craft: strategy instruction and self-regulation in the writing process. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.