Creating Content in Writing
June 4, 2021
We’ve seen in this series the first two aspects of essays that the English Department at Southern uses to evaluate essays; that is, unity and coherence. There are three more: content, style, and correctness.
The information supplied in an essay is, generally speaking, the content of the essay. Writers must realize, though, that content encompasses more than information, but that’s a topic for another day.
Without good content, an essay is worthless. So writers have to exert all their powers in inventing content. Invention itself is its own particular skill and involves a lot of thinking, imagining, and researching. The first ideas that come to a writer’s mind are often too obvious. It takes work to create meaningful information in an essay.
It is also important to realize that information comes in two forms. As one writer has said, think of an essay as information and the meaning of that information. Writers do not merely supply information to a reader. Writers must show what their information means. Both of these elements are content.
Information must be accurate and authoritative—that’s a given. Writers find accurate information by searching for known facts and authoritative support that can be used to further the purpose of an essay. Accurate, clear information often is its own explanation.
In other words, readers can often interpret the significance of information without explanation. Basically, the concreteness, the truth, and the significance of information is sometimes self-evident. You must not depend upon this assumption, however. You can make a mistake by assuming readers understand what information means.
When adding information to an essay, you should avoid statements that are clearly untrue. “World War II began in 1953.” Such statements destroy your credibility. If you aren’t sure that what you are saying is factual, do some research!
If an essay is to be eight-hundred words long, that means you need eight-hundred words worth of good, specific information. Good information is not “fluffy.” Good content is concrete and rich. You need to create a sense that your essay contains a lot of information squeezed into a small space.
Your essay should be the tip of the iceberg of what you actually know. Only the best information has made it into your essay. When body builders workout, they are seeking to exchange fat for muscle. Writers are doing the same thing.
All content should be relevant to the purpose of the essay. There shouldn’t be a single statement off the topic. Every idea should add to the store of evidence you are accumulating in support of your thesis.
Sometimes students fill space in an essay by stating information that is true, but trite, obvious, or unoriginal. “My family was always there for me.” Such statements add nothing to content.
Students, driven by the need to create content, will sometimes merely repeat themselves. A piece of information usually counts only once!
Good content comes in three varieties. All content appeals to “ethos,” “pathos,” and “logos.” Ethos appeals to the writer’s good character and good sense. Pathos appeals to something concrete such as an image or a story, or to an important value. Logos appeals to reason and logic. A good writer uses all of these modes of persuasion. Each has its own power. In writing, each is present in some way.
Here's an example of how these three “modes of persuasion” operate. If I were to write one equation on a piece of paper, all three modes are present. Let’s use the Pythagorean theorem to illustrate.
First, I’m showing my ethos by acknowledging the importance of this theorem. Second, I’m using pathos by placing this theorem in the middle of an otherwise blank piece of paper. A powerful image! And third, I’m showing my logos by implicitly claiming I know what this theorem is good for; that is, I could use the theorum to find the slope of a line if I first have a right angle.
Good content is at the heart of good writing. An essay could be written poorly, but a nugget of information just might change the world!