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.

When I was in college, my English professor returned a paper to me with the comment, “Well-written, but what’s your point?” At first I was incensed, but after I calmed down I realized that he might just be right — So what? What good were my fluid sentences, my clever turns of phrase, my picture-perfect spelling and grammar, if I had nothing to say? After I became an English teacher, I read more than my share of “bed-to-bed” stories and “all-about” reports that left me with that same question: “So what?” My writing and the writing of many of my students lacked a clear focus.

More than just the main idea

Focus is the Feature of Effective Writing that answers the question “So What?” An effective piece of writing establishes a single focus and sustains that focus throughout the piece. Just as a photographer needs to focus on a particular subject to produce a clear picture, a writer needs to focus on a single topic or main idea in order to produce an effective piece of writing. But finding a focus means more than just knowing what to photograph or write about. Good photographers also think about what they want their photograph to communicate. This affects their decisions about how to frame their subject in the shot, and whether to zoom in for a closeup or zoom out for a wide angle shot. Similarly, writers must think about what their topic should communicate. For a newspaper reporter, for example, finding a focus for a story means finding an “angle,” a perspective from which to tell the story.

Focus, therefore, involves more than just knowing what your story is about, but understanding why you are writing it in the first place. Without a clear focus, students’ stories, reports, and essays degenerate into lists of loosely related events or facts with no central idea to hold them together, leaving the reader to ask “So what?” By establishing a clear focus before they start to write, students can craft their writing into a coherent, unified whole. Finding a focus helps students find the significance in their stories, the message that they want to convey to their audience, their reason for writing.

Establishing a clear focus also helps readers understand the point of the piece of writing. Readers don’t want to read a mishmosh of unrelated ideas; they read to learn something new, to be surprised, to gain a new insight on an old idea, to view something from a new perspective or angle.

Focus is also the critical feature that drives all the other features. Focus determines what choices the writer makes about everything from organizational structure to elaborative details to word choice, sentence length, and punctuation. At the same time, effective writers take advantage of the appropriate supporting features to strengthen the focus of their writing.

Finding focus: before writing and during revision

A critical factor in establishing a focus is setting a goal. Studies by writing researchers show that goal-setting is an important element of planning for mature adult writers (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1987; Hayes and Flower, 1980). Bereiter and Scardamalia found that immature writers engaged in little goal-directed planning before they wrote. Instead, most of their planning occurred on the fly while they were writing, using a “what next?” strategy to write the next sentence. Rather than viewing their text as a whole, immature writers focused on localized, surface-level revisions that did little to improve the quality of the text. Bereiter and Scardamalia characterized this immature writing process as a linear “knowledge-telling” process. For mature writers, however, planning and revising were goal-directed, recursive activities that occurred at a global level throughout the writing process. As a result, for mature writers, writing becomes a “knowledge-transforming” process that not only improves the quality of their writing, but also moves them toward greater understanding of their topic.

The time for students to think about focus, therefore, is before they begin to write, during the prewriting phase of the writing process. Critical to establishing a focus is knowing your audience. Who will read the piece of writing, and why? What will readers know or expect when they sit down to read?

Author Katie Wood Ray suggests that students not only need to know what they are going to write about; they also need to be able to envision a range of possible roles, audiences, and forms for their writing. This ability to envision multiple possibilities requires exposure to a wide range of genres by a wide range of authors. Students can also use expressive writing, such as journal writing, personal experience narratives, and other forms of exploratory writing, to explore and experiment with different perspectives that will help them find their focus. Strategies such as RAFTS (Role, Audience, Form, Task, Strong verb) can help students find their focus before they begin writing.

Guiding questions for focus

Although it is important for students to think about focus before they begin writing, focus can also be strengthened through thoughtful revision. Students and teachers can use these guiding questions during revision conferences to strengthen the focus of their writing.

  1. What is the most important point in your piece?
  2. Does the piece stay focused on the most important topic or the main event?
  3. Are there any ideas or events in your story that do not strengthen the main focus?

Lesson plans that help students learn to find and strengthen their focus are available.


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

Hayes, J., & Flower, L. (1980). “Identifying the organization of writing processes.” In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive processes in writing (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ray, Katie Wood. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.