If you’ve followed this blog, you know that my NUMBER 1 complaint about how writing is taught in school/college/grad school is that most of the writing students are assigned to do has no real audience beyond the teacher...who reads because she/he is paid to grade it. But when students go to work, they must always write to a real person, usually many real people.
The writing skills students learn in school, writing for no real audience, fall short when they go to work. Having a real reader makes writing suddenly important, risky, valuable, and, for many, frightening. (I define a "real" reader as someone who is interested in the topic/issue and wants useful information to make a real-world decision--beyond grading.)
So please have your students get a lot of practice writing to a real person. Students from the first grade through grad school need to practice, practice, practice, and practice some more writing to a real person. Actually, it’s fun.
Let me first say what they’d learn from this real practice. And then let me give some suggestions for real-writing assignments….
WHAT STUDENTS LEARN FROM WRITING TO A REAL PERSON
I. First of all, students learn how quickly real readers get bored and hit DELETE when the CONTENT is not truly useful to them. Instead of worrying about making their writing inherently interesting, students learn that real readers want useful content. That’s what interests them.
One of the great teaching points here is that writing is actually a CONVERSATION between the writer and the reader. This is really important for students to learn!
Students must also learn that what gives forward-momentum and real energy to any conversation is a loose string of questions and answers. If you don’t grasp this absolutely crucial concept, please email me and I’ll explain further (Harvey@QCGwrite.com).
Another key point is that questions are the manifestation of our interest. When we’re truly interested in something, we ask questions about it. Students need to know this.
The key to USEFUL, interesting content is NOT flowery language or an over-the-top argumentative tone. The key to keeping the reader engaged and truly interested is 1) writing about an ISSUE (topic) the reader truly cares about, 2) knowing all the reader’s questions about that ISSUE (both the questions the reader knows enough to ask and the questions the reader should be asking), and 3) doing the necessary research to answer the reader’s real questions adequately.
When a student writes to a real reader, the student must understand this dynamic to engage the reader in a compelling conversation.
II. Second of all, students learn how their decisions about organizing the information in their writing affect the content itself and how the reader responds to the content.
Here’s a rather advanced example, but instructive nonetheless.
Imagine a real reader wanted to know what three main factors contribute to a high level of fatalities on rural roads. The writer does research and discovers there are several factors that converge, including driver behaviors, rural road characteristics, rural emergency health care and access, funding, lack of public transportation, car design, and wildlife.
Which of the three will the writer select? What will each factor be called? In what order will they appear? Can the writer fit all the factors into just three main categories?
Imagine three small teams of students writing this report. Each team decides on different terminology for the three factors they will feature. Already, these differences will lead to different content. And further organizing factors will also affect the content and the reader’s understanding of the problem.
When students must grapple with such decisions, they are building evergreen real-writing skills they’ll take with them to any workplace they enter and use on most any document they must write or help write.
Another important organizational issue is where the main point comes in each section. Writers will learn that real readers are busy. They don’t get paid to read student writing the way teachers do. Real readers want the main point up front, and then the discussion.
News articles feature the main point first because newspaper readers are busy. The news must capture their attention immediately. Furthermore, the answer-first-explanation-later structure is how we carry on conversations with each other.
In conversation, if somebody asks us a question, our immediate reflex is to answer the question first and then explain further if there are further questions (signaling continued interest). Here’s an example.
Bailey asks Harper, “Do you like sports?”
Harper would never respond like this: “Ah, sports. What is a sport, really? Is jogging a sport? How about billiards? Etc., etc.”
An academic essay may begin with a ponderous introduction like that. But, in a real conversation, Harper would say, “Yes” or “No.” Or something like, “Well, I like baseball, but not football.”
The point is, we begin with the answer. If Bailey asked Harper a follow-up question, “What’s your favorite baseball team?” Harper, again, would begin with the answer, “I grew up a Dodger fan, but now I like the Astros.”
When students write, they ignore how primal the answer-first organizational structure is. They may think they can wait until the CONCLUSION section of their writing to state their bottom-line point. But real readers usually won’t sit still for such indulgence by the writer.
III. Third of all, students learn how important document design is, whether the document is print or electronic.
Student’s essays tend to have a boring, uniform format. They set one-inch margins all around. They double-space. They indent five spaces for each paragraph. That’s about it.
Real readers want more. They expect sections with headings. They expect relatively short paragraphs. They expect visuals—pictures and graphics.
Students can learn about fonts and graphics and infographics and many of the plethora of document design principles that help writers convey their information to interested real-readers.
IV. Fourth of all, students can learn how to craft reader-friendly paragraphs and sentences. They can learn to use plain English (the words we use every day at work to talk to our coworkers and customers). And, they can learn punctuation and grammar.
Before you laugh, let me just put in my pitch for grammar. Any activity we do has a set of terminology we use to talk about that activity. Obvious examples would be sports and crafts. When you golf, you learn about “stance” and “lie” and “irons” and “woods,” how to “draw” how to “fade” how to “chip, drive, putt, pitch,” etc., etc. A complex game like baseball is rife with grammar. Think about the grammar of auto mechanics—the way cars work. An auto mechanic understands that grammar. Does it make him a better driver? Maybe not. But it does make him an effective mechanic. And I'd bet most race car drivers know something about the grammar of auto mechanics.
So why not the grammar of sentences? Knowing grammar helps you control your writing. It may or may not stimulate your imagination and make you a better creative writer…though it can’t hurt.
I teach sentence diagramming to my graduate students in my Editing class. I think they appreciate it. They often tell me it makes them better editors and writers. So there you go.
Writing to real readers has cascading benefits for all students. It’s so much better than writing to nobody in particular, to some phantom, imagined audience, but really only to the caring, nurturing teacher. Where’s the challenge there??? As I said, let’s be real…teachers read student writing because they’re paid to do it.
Learning to truly engage a real reader is priceless practice for any student!
WHAT ARE SOME PRODUCTIVE ASSIGNMENTS FOR REAL-WRITING?
I. One of the very best assignments for any age group is writing a review. Here’s why.
In this scenario, the real reader can be another student. A first grader might write a review of pets for a student who wants to get a pet, or a video game, or anything another student would care to learn about. In grad school, a student might review a public policy. You can actually review anything that exists.
Doing a review gives students the chance to learn a invaluable three-step critical-thinking path that leads to cogent analysis and persuasive recommendations:
1. Criteria – Condition = GAP
The first critical-thinking step requires that the student find or develop evaluative criteria for assessing the actual situation (whatever is being reviewed). The student must then discover whether the thing being reviewed meets, exceeds, or falls short of the evaluative criteria. Is there a GAP?
2. Is the GAP a Problem?
The second step requires the students to determine whether the gap, if there is one, rises to the level of a real problem. To do this, the student needs to discover the effect/consequences of the gap. The eventual recommendation will fall flat if there’s no important impact from the gap. Without real EFFECT, persuasion is probably impossible.
3. Why is there a Problem?
The third step seeks the causes of the gap/problem. Once the student discovers the causes or contributing factors of the gap/problem, the student can make recommendations directed at these causes, recommendations that will fix or address the problem.
If a student were asked to review a movie (for another student who was actually thinking of going to that movie), the student would watch the movie and judge it based on the reviewer's evaluative criteria. The student would explain any gaps—places where the movie fell short of or possibly exceeded the criteria. The student could then discuss the consequences of the gaps and why they happened (bad script ruined the movie???). The student could then tell the real reader to go or not go to the movie.
This three-step critical-thinking path is important for students to learn. Getting students to think about the evaluative criteria they use to judge all the things in their lives is an incredibly valuable exercise---life lesson.
II. Group reports are great, especially if they’re short. But they must have a real reader. Working in a group on writing may teach group dynamics and teamwork, but it also reveals how others write, what options there are to solve writing problems, how to build a group document. Very valuable practice.
III. Best of all, have a student ask another student what that student would like to know about and why. Reverse the process. Have the students write reports for each other.
In this process of writing for a real person (it doesn’t have to be another student; it could be someone in the community—experiential learning/service learning), the real person must be part of the grading process. Only the intended real reader can honestly say whether the writing met his/her needs and where it fell short. This feedback is so real. It’s so much better than a teacher’s advice.
I often have my students write about things I want to know. They become my research crew. I become the real reader who actually needs the information. For instance, I’m actually thinking of buying an all-electric car. So they research the topic and tell me what cars to check out. I tell them where their reports excel or fall short. It’s totally real…and useful, I might add.
So there’s my pitch. Please! Have students write to real people. Okay, a good research paper is de rigueur for school. It can teach useful skills. It’s even more useful if the research paper has a real audience.
Email me if you have questions.
Download our FREE 200-page ebook (lots of pictures), Mindful Writing at Work (http://qcgwrite.com/mindful-writing-at-work). It presents very practical critical-thinking concepts and writing techniques.
If you teach writing, ask for a free examination copy of our textbook, Mastering Workplace Writing (http://qcgwrite.com/mww), which received a nice review from Daniel Pink, among others. The students who’ve used the book have offered wonderful reviews we’re proud to have received. See the student gallery for some of their comments (http://qcgwrite.com/studentgallery/).
As always, my goal is to put the WRITING back into so-called “business writing,” “technical writing,” “academic writing,” or whatever colleges want to call it. It’s also to make people realize that WRITING is just as much about the CONTENT as the PRESENTATION…from the reader’s point of view, content is always far more important than the presentation…the precious cargo more important than the vehicle that carries it…the love and spirit more important than the body. You get the idea!
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