The Importance of Unity in Writing

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Today’s lesson is on an attribute of all good writing — unity. Unity means oneness. It describes writing that sticks to a central idea, theme, or story. Good writing doesn’t wander around like a gossip at a dinner party, it stays focused like an astronomer at his telescope.

Read the following passage and see if you can tell where the writer violates the principle of unity:

We rounded the hilltop and our hearts leapt. Below us snaked miles of winding blacktop — a motorcyclist’s dream. The air was clear and the sun reflected off beetle-sized cars inching along thousands of feet below us. One of them might have been a limousine, but it was too far away to tell. I dropped down a gear and felt the machine lurch ahead, eager for the descent. Chris hugged my waist a bit tighter and we leaned hard into the first turn.

Did you catch the sentence that wandered from the subject of the paragraph? It was the one about the limousine. If that sentence didn’t leap out at you, read it again — it’s as though the writer got distracted by the cars he was describing and forgot that the point of the paragraph was the start of an exciting motorcycle ride. Read the paragraph again without that sentence and you’ll see how much more focused it becomes.

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Here’s another example from an expository paper. See if you can spot the sentence that wanders off track:

One of the most important and controversial parts of the U.S. Constitution is what is referred to as the Necessary and Proper Clause. It is found in Article One, section 8, and gives Congress the power to “make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers given to them. This little clause is important because it seems to give a great deal of power to Congress. It is an old axiom that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The historic point of controversy over this clause has to do with how we define the words necessary and proper.

See it? The sentence that contains the quote about absolute power doesn’t quite fit. It’s a good quote and might be useful somewhere else in the paper, but as it is, the sentence is a distraction from the overall purpose of the paragraph. It tempts the reader to contemplate the corrupting effects of power when they should simply be learning about an important and controversial part of the Constitution.

Some people have a round-about way of speaking. Maybe you’re like that. You get started in one direction, but a word or a phrase will remind you of a completely different story, and you’ll head off on a tangent for a while. Sometimes you get so excited about this secondary idea that you forget what the first point even was.

People put up with this when we’re speaking casually, but it’s a bad habit for writers. Good writers make sure that every word, every sentence, every paragraph serves the purpose of the paper.

Writing with unity requires mental discipline. Active minds are easily distracted. It’s a common thing to begin a journey with a clear destination, only to get sidetracked and find yourself lost and needing to find your way back to the original path. Don’t let this happen as you write. Keep focused and let every sentence serve your overall purpose.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Roberta Gallant
    Roberta Gallant05-14-2013

    You should now add avoiding to-be and be verbs in writing to your WriteAtHome
    website. People always abuse these verbs every day and night when they write.
    Everybody ought to show, now tell.

  2. Brenda
    Brenda07-09-2012

    Thanks for great examples of distraction in writing!

    • Brenda
      Brenda07-09-2012

      Let me try again….that was an incomplete and unedited comment, sorry. Thanks for explaining focus in another way. I like the word choice, “unity.” Thank you for sharing you passion with others.

      • Brian Wasko
        Brian Wasko07-09-2012

        Thanks, Brenda. Focus works as well as unity, I suppose.

  3. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko07-09-2012

    Be my guest, Daphne. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Daphne
    Daphne07-09-2012

    I teach high school English, and I would love to use this blog posting as a focus point of discussing the importance of a focused idea in writing. I especially liked that you gave expository and narrative examples.

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