I love Car Talk. Radio listeners call in, describe their cars’ troubles and mimic their cars’ sounds, while brothers Tom and Ray (the show’s self-effacing, MIT-educated hosts) try to figure out what’s wrong. Tom and Ray crank out the mechanical advice, sure, but not without an occasional trip down memory lane and a whole lot of philosophizing. I’ve actually managed to learn a thing or two from their technical explanations, but their hilarious ramblings are what keep me tuning in week after week.
For all their automotive genius, Tommy and Ray readily admit they “get it wrong” from time to time. They’ll say it’s the power steering pump – only to discover months later that the tires had been making that “whoo-whoo” sound. But do listeners switch channels? Absolutely not. That’s because the Magliozzi mechanics have also got style.
When it comes to writing, getting the mechanics right (grammar, spelling, punctuation) is both critically important and relatively easy to do. But coming up with fresh ideas and articulating them clearly? Now that takes style – and that’s the hard part. And because sizing up such fuzzy, stylistic qualities as “idea” and “word choice” is also really tough, writing evaluators often fall into the trap of focusing solely on mechanics.
Rubrics define the range of strong writing characteristics and simplify the evaluator’s task. (The 6+1 Trait® writer’s rubric from Education Northwest [modified to incorporate information literacy skills and adherence to proper style] happens to be the happy owl’s favorite.) Use a rubric like this to guide your own writing and to evaluate others’ as well:
- Idea / Content: a clearly stated original idea, backed up with accurate details and relevant anecdotes
- Organization: a sensible structure takes the reader logically from point to point
- Voice: the writer engages the reader in a passionate yet respectful way
- Word Choice: words set the intended mood, infuse energy, and convey memorable mental images
- Sentence Fluency: sentences vary in structure and have flow, rhythm, and cadence; read aloud, they sound almost musical
- Conventions: near-perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar minimize distraction and simplify the reader’s task
Of course, a mechanically perfect car will get you from Point A to Point B. But it’d be way more fun to drive that snappy little red number, wouldn’t it? Likewise, a mechanically perfect piece of writing will most certainly inform your audience. But why not write something that engages, enlightens, and inspires? Now that’s beyond style. That’s class! Need help? Contact the happy owl anytime!