Whenever we're asked to help clients figure out what makes writing good, we ask them to assemble models of pieces that resonate with them, that make them say, "I wish I'd written that."
Together we analyze the pieces to suss out those Gold Standards I write so much about. One of the ways we do that is to ask targeted questions about the text. We call the The Five Big Questions™ (as developed by Steve Peha). The first two are the ones that are the most valuable for building a Gold Standards document. All five are terrific for analyzing any one piece of content to make it better.
The 5 Big Questions™
➀What makes this writing good?
Which parts do you like? Why do you like those parts? Are parts of this writing better than other writing you’ve read? How do you know? Use the language of your team criteria to explain how you feel.
➁What would make this writing better?
Which parts are not as good as they could be? Why don’t you like them? What changes could the author make that would help you understand and enjoy the writing more? How would those changes make the writing better? Use the language of your classroom criteria to explain how you feel.
➂What’s the one most important thing the writer wants you to know?
Is there one clear message the writer wants you to remember? What is it? How do you know? What details tell you you’re right? This is the writer’s main idea.
➃Why did the writer write this piece?
What was the author’s purpose in writing this piece? What does the writer want you to think and/or do after you’ve finished the piece? Why would it be valuable or meaningful for someone to read this?
➄What does the audience need to know?
Who is this writer writing for? What information does the audience need to enjoy and understand this piece? What questions do they have? What would they like to know more about? What part of the piece will interest them most? How does the author’s voice, and the details the author decides to include, show that he or she is thinking about the audience?
Working through this process on a set of models helps us hone our Gold Standards criteria and include examples for people to follow.
The Five Big Questions can also be used as a framework for revising. We often train up teams of writers in this form of evaluation so they'll stay focused on the right kinds of revision. The best revisions make the piece better for the intended audience, so focusing on things like ideas, details and audience needs/appropriateness is key. Things like word-smithing or showing off are not. And The Five Big Questions serve as a handy reminder. Some of our clients even include the questions in their revision requests.
Next time you're evaluating your own or someone else's writing (even in a magazine article or blog post you read today), walk yourself through The Five Big Questions and see if they don't give you a clearer picture of what makes writing good.
(You can download this poster here. Yes, we know it has the word classroom in it. We use this version in schools!)