I am a part of a writing group that meets twice a month. When we meet, each member is asked to read 5 pages of something they’ve written. You’d be surprised at how effective reading 5 pages of a first draft out loud to other writers is for finding how weak your writing is. I typically end up slightly embarrassed about simple mistakes that I totally overlooked. Often it is simple punctuation mistakes, but I’ve recently noticed another serious flaw that hinders my writing that goes beyond grammar.
It is the flaw of forgetting the reader. For years I’ve known about the flaw of forgetting the reader, but it has taken years to figure out how to actually fix the problem. I’m aware of the problem when I revise my non-fiction blog entries. I’ve recently noticed how the problem is making my poetry weak. I remember a long conversation with my grad school professor Dr. Romine about the problem while revising an American literature essay I wrote back in 2011. I’ve come to realize the mistake can be made in all styles and genres of writing from short stories to work emails.
What exactly is this flaw? Some composition teachers might warn young writers about this by saying “always remember your audience.” Part of the flaw is forgetting the reader to failing to explain the context of the topic you are writing about. A topic I’ve written about multiple times in the last 8-9 years is how teachers adopt (or do not adopt) technology in today’s classroom. My general stance on the issue is that educators should be hesitant to integrate technology into the classroom. When I write about the issue, I am quick to start presenting my stance with the hope that I’ll persuade the audience to change their minds. But the problem is I can bypass any background knowledge about that relates to current trends and debates related to education and technology. I make the mistake of being in a big hurry to “get to my point” about persuading the reader that technology hinders students today more than it helps students without giving a brief history of the issue.
Typically, my passion to get my ideas on the page drives my first draft of an essay. Passion, urgency and having a specific claim are all very good things that I want to develop in my first draft. First drafts (in my style of writing) are often best when they are unorganized and messy. Then comes the hard part of giving my ideas structure so my reader understands where I am going. If I fail to think about the reader’s prior knowledge when doing my 3rd and 4th drafts of my essay, I can potentially confuse the reader or bore the reader.
Part of the reason I am writing this blog entry is because of the painfully boring intro paragraphs to I've had to read over the years as an English teacher. A majority of my students who come into my class know that they are supposed to write an intro paragraph. They know they are supposed to write at least 3-4 sentences “introducing” the topic to the reader. But they rarely know why. The purpose of an intro paragraph is to bring up some recent debates/cultural situation/historic story/pop culture reference that sparks the reader’s interest in their topic. It is informative. I am writing this blog entry partially in hopes that I by writing about these plain intro paragraphs, it might inspire students to understand why they write boring introduction paragraphs. Yet also remind students I struggle with this problem myself sometimes without even realizing it.
Why do we often skip context when writing? David Foster Wallace says in his essay “Authority and American Usage” that we skip context because of “the flaw of self-absorption.” In his years as a writing professor and prolific author, Wallace says his students have a hard time not assuming their audience understands where they are coming from. Wallace says his students are not ignorant but often that they lack self-awareness and humility:
“Helping them eliminate this error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind---anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider conclude, you must provide. (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue---your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.”
These things might seem like obvious truths, but Wallace says it can be difficult to get students to see when they are making this mistake. It can be easy to assume your reader grew up in a similar culture as you, that their family is just like yours, and have similar knowledge about history/politics/religion as you. Rather than assuming these things about the reader, we have to instead ask ourselves “What information should I provide for my reader?”
When I make this mistake it is typically because of my own self-absorbed attitude when I write. (Sometimes this can be innocent self-absorption; sometimes proud self-absorption.) I recently wrote a poem about wakeboarding and read it to my writing group. Someone in the group asked me “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what wakeboarding is. Can you include more in your poem about what it visually looks like to wakeboard?” Part of me reacts to this as “Well, I don’t feel like adding more details about what wakeboarding is in my poem. Either you know what a wakeboard is, or you don’t.” We don’t always have to explain everything in what we write. If fewer people know what wakeboarding is than I expect, that might mean fewer people understand my poem. If that is the case, then revising my poem to connect with a wider audience might be the best option for me.
Wallace says when writing we must have “the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs” of their own. We must use our imagination to meet the reader halfway. This takes intentional effort can be tedious and boring. If we want for the world to listen to what we have to say, we have to do the tedious and boring parts of spending another 2 hours on a writing piece to get a reaction for the reader.
Are you devoted to the message of your writing? If so, we may have to accept the pain of writing for another hour or 2 to persuade the reader. I have found that the harder I work on the message of my writing and the clearer my presentation is for the reader, the less the reader has to work. I don’t want the reader to have to put much effort into understanding what I am saying. I am not suggesting compromise your message for lazy audience members; but I know to make my writing logically clear and digestible takes a lot of work on my part.
When Forgetting the Reader is Good
I must make a disclaimer here. When I say “the flaw of forgetting the reader” I am talking about writing your 3rd and 4th drafts that you are planning on making public. Forgetting the reader is sometimes a very good thing. Forgetting the reader is a habit that can be an essential step for creating quality early drafts. Becoming less self-conscious is a good practice in early drafts of a writing project. In the early stages of writing I strive to forget the reader. I do what I call a “Word Vomit” for 30 minutes and just type whatever comes to mind on a Word document with no intention of ever showing this first draft to anyone. Private drafts (early on) should strive to avoid thinking about what others will think but instead just to get the ideas on the page. The later drafts are intentional about serving the reader and connecting with the audience.
Another reason why forgetting the reader can be good is if you are only writing in a personal journal. If you keep a personal journal about your day, then you shouldn’t worry about what the reader thinks. Having a place to privately processing your thoughts can result in some great ideas to present to the public. So when I say “forgetting the reader is a flaw”-------I am talking about for writing that is going public and you are sharing with the world.
Two Ways to Appeal to Your Reader (Solutions to the Problem)
Tip #1: Qualify your central claim in a way that is favorable to those who are disinterested or disagree.
Sometimes we confuse proving to your audience that you are right with trying to change your audience’s mind. Sometimes my central motive when writing is more “I have something I want to say, and I want people to listen to me” or “If these people hear what I have to say, then they will agree with me.” There’s nothing wrong with these feelings. It is human to want to tell stories and share opinions. Simply telling your story can change a person’s mind. But sometimes having the motive of I “have something to say,” can result in an aimless ramble or rant. It can simply be noise to the reader.
One way to be creative in your appeal is to phrase your central argument in a way that appeals to those who disagree. The way you phrase your argument can be very strong or it can be somewhat of a compromise. To refer back to my earlier argument about technology in the classroom, here are three ways I could phrase my main claim to change my audience’s mind about computers in the classroom:
Strong Statement: “Laptops (and other computers) in the classroom are destroying student’s ability to retain information in 2019.”
Strong Statement (with implied action): “Laptops should be banned from college classrooms in 2019.”
Qualified Statement: “Laptops (and other computers) are hurting students more than they are helping student’s ability to learn in 2019.”
The first two statements are worded in such a way that reveals the writer’s strong stance on the issue. Putting forth a strong stance can immediately show your audience where you stand on the issue. However, my qualified stance could make my audience members who disagree with me more willing to listen to what I have to say. I am not compromising my stance about laptops in the classroom, but I am phrasing in a way that does acknowledge that there are advantages to having a laptop in the classroom (suggesting there are more negatives than positives).
The problem with the two strong statements is that they appeal only to people who already agree with me about computers in the classroom. But if my motive is to change the minds of people who disagree with me, I probably want to go with the qualified statement. What good is it to aim your belief at people who already agree with you? Shouldn’t you be aiming your belief at those who disagree with you?
Therefore, try to formulate a qualified statement for your argument. This might not change their mind on the spot, but it can make those who disagree question their own beliefs.
Tip #2: Become self-aware of how you want your reader to respond.
I think it is fine for early drafts of a piece of writing to be self-centered and to aimlessly ramble. This can often help us understand why we are writing. However, as I said earlier, as we move forward into later drafts we want to know exactly how we want our reader to respond.
I wrote a blog entry to persuade my reader that using the whiteboard in the classroom is appealing to Millennials. I aimed this particular blog entry towards teachers. And more than anything, I wanted to give them an alternative to using PowerPoint presentations during lectures.
Essentially, I had an underlying motive and that was to develop a skepticism in teachers about always assuming technology makes the classroom better but instead using old-school methods to appeal to the current generation. However, that wasn’t my central goal. It did not really matter whether other teachers agreed with me that technology was good or bad in the classroom. Rather, it mattered more that by using the whiteboard, teachers were able to connect with their students in lecture and discussion.
While I had good research that I wanted to bring up about the downsides of technology, it was more important for me to persuade my audience that the whiteboard was still relevant and underrated in the 21st century. Therefore, I had to cut our certain research since it would have distracted the audience from the central action I wanted them to take: use the old-school whiteboard to teach off of.
Building your argument around how you want your audience to respond. This forces you to cut out the unrelated aimless rambles. For myself, thinking about what action I want my reader to take has always made me less self-righteous when writing (“I want the reader to see how right I am about ____________.”) and more focused on connecting with them so I can actually change their mind. Believe it or not, there is a desire to want to give the reader an impression of the writer of being intelligent (creative, clever, deep or superior) more than actually changing the reader’s mind.
Sometimes I need to learn how to get out of the way.
The tips I’ve suggested above are mostly for research and argument writing. I’ve only touched on a few solutions on how to fix this, I could expand. Yet all of this is simply the flaw of assuming the people you want to communicate with are on the same mental wavelength as you. More than likely, they are not. So don’t assume.
I’ll close with a story from my childhood. I have an early memory from when I was a child (probably about 5 or 6) sitting on the floor of my grandfather’s house in the summer. My mother and grandfather were sitting in two chairs having a conversation; then there’s me, sitting on the carpeted floor by myself thinking. All of the sudden, I had the urge to interrupt my mom’s conversation with my grandfather to share a story that had popped into my head.
So I interrupted and just started talking about something, probably telling a story. And my mom said “Nathan, what are you talking about?”
My mom still looked confused and she said something like “Nathan, explain what you mean.” I will always remember my mom’s look of confusion. And I remember thinking to myself “Maybe when I start talking about whatever is in my head------------the people won’t always understand what I mean?” Maybe I should not talk unless I’ve explained myself a bit.
Even your mom can’t read your mind. So do the hard work of getting on the same wavelength as your reader so they will be willing to listen to your message.