Substantive Prose

Substantive Prose concerns what a rhetor communicates as opposed to how a rhetor communicates. Substance is essence. Core matter. If your document lacks substance, it is frivolous, a waste the of reader’s time.

Substantive Prose refers to a style of prose that audiences may call well developed, interesting, surprising, or thought provoking.

See Also:
Revise for Substantive Prose

Substantive Prose may have major stylistic problems and yet be considered substantive if the audience finds the content to be insightful–and perhaps even original. However, If readers cannot easily comprehend the content, they are likely to dismiss it–and move on to some other activity. Thus, Substantive Prose tends to be largely free of stylistic infelicities at the local level and well organized at the global level.

Often, in fact, because being interesting and surprising is so tied to being valued as substantive, rhetors may engaged in artful prose. Consider, eg., Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice:

  Some say the world will end in fire,
  Some say in ice.
  From what I’ve tasted of desire
  I hold with those who favor fire.
  But if it had to perish twice,
  I think I know enough of hate
  To know that for destruction ice
  Is also great
  And would suffice.

The characteristics of prose that readers consider to be substantive is shaped by the author’s rhetorical context. For instance,

  • a startup incubator like Y Combinator or a contestant on Shark Tank may consider an entrepreneurial pitch to be naive because the aspiring entrepreneurs have failed to present a sustainable business thesis or value proposition.
  • the dissertation committee for a doctoral student might find a research proposal to be underdeveloped and banal whereas that students’ family might consider the proposal to be profound.

That said, the following characteristics of prose are often correlated with prose that is judged to be substantive:

Rhetors develop substantive prose by engaging in information literacy, invention, research methods, and writing processes. Because how something is written affects comprehension, rhetors also need to consider stylistic principles.

Provide Evidence for Claims

Anecdotal evidence and relevant narrative

Example: Interview a health food store owner to learn more about his or her experience with vegetarian food choices; include relevant narrative about personal experience with choosing a vegetarian lifestyle.

Quotes, paraphrases, and summaries from textual research

Example: Provide data from qualitative research when comparing the effectiveness of different methods for teaching young children to read.

Search reputable academic databases: These databases, such as Academic Search Premier and JSTOR, include searchable collections of scholarly works, academic journals, online encyclopedias, and helpful bibliographies that can usually be accessed through a college library website.

Search credible news sources: Databases, such as Access World News, can be used to locate news articles from around the world. Articles from reputable news sources may also be found through careful Internet searches.

Search academic peer-reviewed journals: Journal articles that have been peer-reviewed are generally considered reliable because they have been examined by experts in their field for accuracy and quality.

Search Google scholar: This Internet search engine helps the user locate scholarly literature in the form of articles and books, professional societies’ websites, online academic websites, and more.

Ask for help at the library research desk: Library staff can provide useful services, such as assistance with the use of library research tools, guidance with identifying credible and non-credible sources, and personalized assistance with the selection of reliable sources.

Quantitative data, such as statistics

Example: Present the percentage of a specific ethnic population in low-income housing units when making a claim related to racial poverty.

Visual Data

Example: Photos, animations, wire framing.

Substance & the Writing Process


Related Concepts

Preliminary Research

Writing with Sources

Integrate Textual Evidence (Quotes, Paraphrases, Summaries)

Additional articles on Substance:

  1. Concrete & Sensory Language

    Why should abstract terms be replaced with concrete, sensory terms? The goal of a writer is to communicate ideas clearly....