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More Cheap Pre-writing Tricks


When I work with students in conferences I spend most of my time helping them unearth and add details, helping them identify areas needing further development. While we are struggling to make sentences and structure our paragraphs, it's easy to forget that when we finish writing, we are going to give the product to a reader. We are inside of our essays. Our readers are standing outside of our essays trying to get in. What this means is that as writers we lived the events we are describing and felt the emotions we are trying to relate, but that our readers aren't PRIVY to the full contexts our writing springs from. They weren't there and they didn't feel the emotions. It is our job as writers to find a way to draw them in and help them see, feel and ultimately understand what we experienced or believe.
When we aren't mindful of our reader, our writing tends to be under cooked and STERILE because we are then only operating out of our own private spheres. We don't need the details because we already have them living in our heads.

Writing for yourself is fine and wonderful, but this is not the kind of writing our college courses and our jobs require. In college, and in the work place, we will usually be writing for an outside reader, and as soon as I write for a reader who is unfamiliar with me or my subject matter I have new responsibilities. When I write for an audience I must work very hard to ensure that everything I write has a clearly recognizable point of REFERENCE and is ADORNED with enough details and examples to be clear.

One of the truly important writing skills is the ability to anticipate what this outside reader is going to need from you in order to understand you. You need to learn how to write from a reader's PERSPECTIVE. Try to EMPATHIZE a little with the readers and visualize the difficult task you have set for them. Try to recall how difficult it was for you the last time you had to decode a text that confused you. On these occasions, what did you need from the writer that you didn't receive?

When I write, I often attempt to create a reader in my head who doesn't know me well and who doesn't know anything about the subject matter of my text. If I am trying to write about very complicated material, I will actually cut a photograph of a strange, pleasant face out of a magazine, pin it on the wall above my desk, and try to help this person clearly understand everything I am trying to say in my writing. (I have 24 nephews and nieces. For years, until they were all grown up, I used to receive their grade school photographs in the mail from their parents. If I was having a particularly difficult time imagining my reader, I would pull one of these photographs off my refrigerator, tack it over my desk, and write for this young and NEEDY audience.)

But what exactly does my audience need?

This is a tough question to answer because we are usually so deeply IMMERSED in the process of our writing that it is difficult to keep our readers in focus. Over time, you will learn to deftly insert just the right detail at just the right moment to help your reader. While you're gaining this experience, here is a list of 20 questions you can ask yourself while you are developing and writing your essays which might help you help your audience. You can ask yourself these questions at any stage of the clustering or brainstorming process. If you respond fully to these questions as you fill in each bubble on your map, you stand a much better chance of writing an essay which is rich and clear. Not all of these questions are going to apply, but attempt to ask and answer all those which might help your reader. (For fun and exercise, pick any bubble on the clusters we discussed earlier and try to imagine how these questions might lead to even more bubbles!)

What does this mean?
What happened? When did it occur?
Why did it happen, or why did I want it to happen?
Why do I believe or want this?
How does this work?
How did/does this happen?
Who am I talking about?
Why am I talking about it/her/him/them?
Why is this important to tell, to know?
What else is important about this idea/detail/point?
How could I help my audience see this more clearly?
What details could I include to make this clearer?
What background/context/history would help to make this clearer or more interesting?
Why am I saying this?
Why am I interested in talking about this, about telling this to my reader?
What are the details?
This list is also great to use when you are asked by colleagues to evaluate their essays. As you read their essays, keep this list nearby and run through the list whenever you come across a passage which seems underdeveloped or unclear. Don't just moan that something is unclear, try to help them find details, examples or alterna

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