Asking (and Answering) the Right Question: How to Know What to Write Next

by Jonas Myers

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“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

In my job in the Academic Resource Center, I meet with about ten different students on a weekly basis. While I was hired specifically to help these students with accommodations-related issues (usually, dyslexia), most of the time we end up working on writing just the way you would with the average Writing Center student. We do some brainstorming; we talk about how to craft strong theses and support them; we discuss clarity and sentence structure; perhaps most of all, we work on some level of organization. This makes sense: the easy part of writing (relatively speaking) is haphazardly getting your raw ideas onto the page. It’s the subsequent shaping and arranging that takes real nuance and care. Indeed, “organization” is second only to “clarity” in terms of what students cite as the reason they seek help at the Writing Center. “Clarity” is perhaps most common in the Writing Center because the majority of our visitors are one-timers, coming in with nearly final drafts, very close to their due date. This persists as the most common way people make use of the Writing Center, and that’s fine. What’s nice about my job in the ARC is that no one is coming in just one time. Don’t get me wrong–people still bring me drafts late in the game (sometimes only an hour from the deadline). But I’ll have already worked, and have future chances to work, with these same folks. Ideally, we’ll look at the same paper multiple times together before it’s time to turn it in. This is the main difference between what happens in my office in the ARC and what happens at the Writing Center.

This regularity provides fertile testing grounds for tutoring methods. Working with the same student over the course of a semester or more, inevitably you find out, to some extent, what works and what doesn’t. One method I’ve been finding widely useful lately is question-driven organization. Allow me to explain: the previous sentence, “one method I’ve been finding widely useful lately is question-driven organization,” left you with questions, did it not? More specifically, it left you with one most burning question: “What does he mean by ‘question-driven organization?'” I’ve dropped in this term at the end of my sentence like it’s something you might be familiar with. However, given that it’s something I’m currently in the process of coming up with myself, I imagine the concept won’t immediately register in your mind. My next sentence better do at least some of the work of answering that question, or I’ve broken your trust–that elusive substance by which the writer-reader relationship is sustained. Now, this explanatory sentence will almost certainly raise questions of its own–which I’d then better answer. And so on. By this method, my writing becomes a series of answers to questions I’m pretty sure you have. Now we’ve got a basic organizational logic.

The real difficulty of this dance is trying to anticipate what the reader is wondering. The reason this is difficult is that you are the one person in the entire world who is decidedly not “the reader.” It takes your best attempt at untying your author’s shoes and slipping into your reader’s loafers. Actually, this is probably something that, as experienced writers, we’re all fairly used to doing. Even if we don’t always think of it in terms of questions, when we write, and specifically when we decide what comes next, we’re engaging in this exercise. We know you have to have your audience in mind. We know sometimes we need to listen to them, and sometimes they need to listen to us. Sometimes we must answer their burning questions, sometimes we step in and answer questions they didn’t even know they had. Far from surrendering all power to the reader, by this method we simply make writing a bit more collaborative. The problem is that you’re collaborating with a ghost. “The reader” is, at this stage anyway, an abstraction. That’s what makes this tricky. Still, anyone who has done a lot of writing has learned a thing or two about the dance, and we dance it less clumsily than we used to.

The much trickier thing is to teach this skill to inexperienced writers. I work almost exclusively with first-year students, so in a college-level writing context, they are all inexperienced. This skill does not come easily for them. If they bring me a draft, I’ll ask them to pick a paragraph; I’ll read them their first one or two sentences, and ask them to identify the questions they’ve raised. What, as a reader, am I wondering? Can they guess?

The answer turns out to be “kind of.” Or “yes, tentatively, with some help.” The question “What should come next?” will almost certainly earn an answer not unlike what they did write next. The key difference here is that I’m not asking what should come next. I’m providing an intermediate step: “What am I wondering? What am I confused about?” This way, we identify the reason for writing what comes next before we attempt to actually write it.

It takes some encouragement. But it’s an intuitive enough idea that it will start to catch on. Even if my students can’t exactly replicate the process, it still ends up being an “aha!” moment for them. It was an “aha!” moment for me when, very late in the college game, I learned about the idea of guiding questions. I learned it as a way of choosing a topic, and of eventually reaching a thesis. I’ve just read a book and a bunch of criticism, now I ask “what do I want to better understand?” It was appealing because it meant choosing to write about what I found interesting.

I’m modifying this idea, and applying it more widely, to practically every stage of the writing process. Several things are appealing about tutoring via question-driven organization. First of all, it works at many levels. Gauging reader questions can help a writer craft a thesis, choose an overall direction for the paper, or just shape a paragraph, and order individual sentences. It can even help within a single sentence–we probably ought to start our sentence by answering a question and end by raising another one, if the sequence is to continue. Second, examples are easy to come by. Pick up any piece of halfway-decent writing and you’ll be able to point to a sentence that answers a question raised by the previous sentence. You can even pluck a piece of the conversation you’re having with your tutee and point out how this logic is working there. Third, the method is easy enough to understand that students can take it home with them after one or two sessions. That’s because it’s based on a very simple principle: try to answer your reader’s question. Chances are, it’s something to which your student hasn’t given much if any thought (hence the “aha!” moment). I mentioned earlier that students have had some difficulty doing this with drafts they’ve already written. I would imagine that it’s much easier to put into practice once they’re writing a new paper. I might not be there to help them through it, but neither is their initial choice there to obscure a much better one. Implementing this process during draft-writing will not only make writing the draft that much easier, it will also mean less time and effort spent reorganizing later on in the process.

Try this method with your students if it intrigues you, and see if it doesn’t get them a little bit excited. Too often, inexperienced writers (and we’ve all been inexperienced writers) feel like they’re writing in the dark–driving through a nighttime fog, as Doctorow would have it, only without headlights in this case. Either they feel like what they’re choosing to write next is random, or they simply get stuck. Getting stuck, or “writer’s block,” comes from a lack of a guiding logic–you can’t see in front of you. I say, if you want to know what comes next, just ask. Ask what you think the reader is asking.

Would you look at that! Suddenly your headlights are on.

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