For the longest time, I've been relying on models to show colleagues and clients the results were trying to achieve in our work. The purpose is always to use these exemplars as a guide, not to copy them wholesale. Twice in the last week, though, I've realized that many people using models forget a crucial step.

They take for granted that people can move from model to practice. Then they marvel when the exemplars are essentially copied, with little or no originality. And my husband, who works in K-12 classrooms all over the country, says he sees the same thing.

Models are incredibly helpful in establishing and replicating high-quality writing. But that only happens if you can tell folks what's good about the examples. Because that's what we want to replicate. And that's not terribly hard. I use the 6 Traits to create a vocabulary for talking about the things we want to replicate from a model.

Writing worksheet: Six Traits

Click image for larger view. © 1995-2014 by Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.

1.    Ideas and Details

Ideas and details are the heart of our content. There needs to be one most important thing the audience should know (think key take-away) and sufficient detail (evidence, examples and explanations) to support this and secondary concepts.  Get more on good ideas.

2.    Organization

This is the structure and format of content--the order of the ideas and details, and the way we move from one idea to the next. A logical flow is important to keep the audience engaged and to effectively convey our points.

3.    Voice & Tone

Voice and tone are the expression of the writer's personality through words. These traits create the way writing feels to someone when reading or listening, and it's how we establish trust. Our tone should match our audience (formal or chatty), platform (research journal or Twitter), and subject (obituary or new client win). Get more tips on finding the right voice for your audience.

4.    Word Choice

Good writing uses just the right words for an audience that say just the right things. Sometimes that means technical jargon or big words, other times it means smaller, simpler language. When we write too far above or below our audience's needs/abilities, we not only lose their attention, but we also lose their trust.

5.    Sentence Fluency

Sounds fancy, but it's just an academic way to talk about the sentence patterns we use and how they impact rhythm and flow. Fluent sentences are easy to understand and full of expression. They may be long or short. By varying our sentence patterns and lengths, we create a pleasing rhythm that builds momentum and keeps the audience engaged. Reading our content out loud is a great way to check off sentence fluency.

6.    Conventions

Conventions are the ways we all agree to use spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar,  other things that make writing consistent and easy to read. These are the guideposts that help users navigate content, especially complicated text and long, descriptive sentences.

Then I put that together in a brief for writers, and if I think we need it, I'll also include a tool for planning the piece. Here are several examples of these briefs that I've used for several publications or projects:

  • Lite version: Gold Standards for Spadework includes just a few standards but they're clear and include an example of the trait from the piece.
  • Regular version: Gold Standards for Citations is more detailed.
  • Full version: The Power of Your Ideas is a packet I designed for an advocacy writing workshop I teach regularly for non-writers. It includes models, a list of criteria, and a strategy for creating content.

While it does take some time to pull this together, it's worth it. Doing so ahead of a project saves time along the way and avoids costly misdirections and do-overs. Download easy-to-implement instructions for creating Gold Standards for any type of content you create.