The “What” and the “Why” of Writing

Dear Dr. Louis,

I recently gave my students the following prompt:  “Write an essay explaining why hard work is necessary to be successful.”  

My District Coordinator told me that [the students’ responses] were not showing the “hard work”  required in the prompt; thus, not answering the “What” in the CDs they wrote. One of my students pointed out that our prompt is asking “why” not “what.” Does this mean that in our CDs we should focus more on the “Why” for a “why essay” and the “What” for a “what essay.”

            David

From Dr. D’,

Hi, David:

From the mouths of babes . . .! Your student’s question speaks volumes, and I am so glad s/he asked it. Students cannot read our minds, so our prompts need to be designed to give them as much clarity as possible, and that could be done by giving them a prompt, such as “Write an essay explaining why hard work is necessary to be successful. Provide evidence to support your answer.”

However, and this is a big “however” — even if a teacher or professor does not put the last sentence above in the prompt, the “What” is implied when writing an academic, logical response to a writing prompt. The “What” is the evidence, the proof, the example, the support — what Jane called the Concrete Detail or CD.

Let me provide a little more information:

The “Why” answer to a prompt is usually found in the following color-coded sentences in a multiparagraph essay:

  • Introduction
  • Thesis 
  • Body Paragraph
  • Topic Sentence (TS)
  • Commentary (CM)
  • Concluding Sentence (CS)
  • Conclusion

The “What” or Concrete Detail (CD) is placed in the body paragraph after the topic sentence and before the concluding sentence, depending on the type of writing and the level of expertise. Here’s another look!

  • Introduction
  • Thesis 
  • Body Paragraph
  • Topic Sentence (TS)
  • Concrete Detail (CD)
  • Concrete Detail (CD)
  • Commentary (CM)
  • Concluding Sentence (CS)
  • Conclusion

(Note: The above structure is the foundation for an expository paragraph, but remember — weaving is the advanced move once the students understand the structure.)

Example Brainstorming, Phrases, Sentences (Divided into the Why’s and the What’s!

Thesis = Hard work pays off in the long run (the Why).

Topic Sentence = Going beyond a high school education requires dedication and hard work, but the result can be rewarding (the Why).

CD = 4 years of college (CD), expenses with tuition and books, time devoted to studying (the What of Hard Work).

CD = Research shows that people with a college education make more money than people without a college education (the What – data).

CM = Rewards come from learning discipline, time management, and other skills that can be applied in life (the Why).

CM = With a college education, a person has more options with regard to a career (the Why).

CS = Getting an advanced education is no easy task, but the hard work can result in both tangible and intangible benefits (the Why).

Another Sample

Why – to win in sports (TS)

What – Julian Edelman, the New England Patriots wide receiver arrives at the Patriots’ workout facility every day at 5:00 A.M. (CD – example of hard work).

Why – Athletes must always hone their skills in order to have the edge over other players (CM).

Why – Talent is important, but Super Bowls are also won by hard work and dedication (CM).

(Note: Weaving and ratios are not addressed in this answer.)

Keep writing,

Dr. D’

 

Dr. Deborah E. Louis

Ph.D. in Humanities

Dr. Deborah E. Louis' passion for educational excellence began as a classroom teacher. For sixteen years, Deborah taught On-level, Pre-AP®, and Advanced Placement® English Language Arts to secondary students of diverse ethnicities and learning styles. In 2010, Deborah purchased the Jane Schaffer Writing Program®, and along with her non-profit organization, Center for Educational ReVision (CerV®), her goal and that of her national team of experts is to provide the highest quality professional learning and mentoring to teachers in the areas of writing, advanced academics, high-stakes testing, and educational technology. Through webinars, workshops, job-embedded training, and teaching materials, Deborah strives to ReVision the educational system, combining traditional and flipped approaches to professional learning for teachers of grades K-12; and differentiating for Special Education, English Language Learners, and Gifted and Talented. Although her mission takes her all over the United States and abroad, Deborah lives in Dallas, Texas USA. She loves music, dancing, archetypal psychology, and continuous learning opportunities.

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