I sighed as I put down the last essay. I knew that Justin was an excellent verbal communicator, but the essays I had just read were awful. Although they were mechanically perfect with all the capitals in place, pronouns in agreement, and clauses properly punctuated, the papers were completely lifeless. Most of them sounded like a bad paraphrase of an encyclopedia entry, or a sixth grader’s summary in a book report.

Justin’s mom had brought his papers to me because she felt that his writing didn’t measure up to his verbal communication skills, but she wasn’t sure what was missing. As a writing coach and evaluator, this is something I often see. Students become competent in lower-level writing skills such as mechanics, but fail to move beyond the basics to master quality content and writing. Instead, they churn out quantities of what I call perfectly parsed piffle—writing that takes up space and looks as if it addresses the topic, but fails to say anything of substance.

Perfectly parsed piffle can be the result of several things. It can happen because the student or the instructor doesn’t understand the difference between a report and an essay; it can be the result of a poorly conceived or poorly written writing assignment; it can happen when the student hasn’t received meaningful and instructive feedback on previous work; and occasionally, it’s simply the result of low expectations on the part of the instructor.

In order for a student to write well, he or she needs to know the qualities of good writing, the purpose of the paper (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, expository), and the standards of evaluation. In Justin’s case, I knew that he had a solid academic background with plenty of reading, and he was an articulate young man, so there wasn’t necessarily a problem with information he was receiving. After further discussion with Justin and his mom, it became clear that the problem stemmed largely from confusion about expectations, coupled with poorly constructed essay assignments and compounded by the difficulty of providing meaningful evaluations.

These problems were easily addressed, and once Justin and his mom had the same understanding and expectations of writing and evaluation, his writing assignments improved dramatically. To help them reach this point, I took them through several steps that you can follow if you’d like to avoid reading perfectly parsed piffle.

An Essay is More Than Just a Report

First, we went back to the basics and talked about the difference between writing a report and writing an essay. A report provides information about something, while an essay takes a position or makes a point on a specific topic. Essays require higher-level thinking, while reports are more elementary. As I often tell my students, a report tells “what,” but an essay tells “why.” Although the papers Justin had turned in were supposed to be essays, they were actually reports, because he hadn’t drawn any conclusions or taken a position on the assigned issue. It was apparent that we needed to study some model essays so that the differences would become apparent.

To find well-written essays to use as models, we turned to the Opinion pages of the local newspaper and read several of the syndicated columns. Most of these columns are written as position papers (another name for an essay), and you can often find two articles on the same topic that support opposing viewpoints. These can be excellent examples of the argumentative or persuasive essay.

As Justin and his mom read each of the model essays, I asked them to notice the tone, structure, and style of each essay, and to note how these elements contributed to the author’s position. At this point, they were both getting excited as they realized that essays were more than just pointless writing exercises. They had a purpose, and the way in which they were written was an important part of communicating that purpose.