January 11th, 2010

Five Questions that Improve Student Writing

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colored pencils

Before embarking on a writing assignment, I challenge my students to imagine a skeptical reader who expects them to answer five important questions. Answering these questions demands critical writing and thinking, and helps the students develop thoughtful content, efficient structure, and clear sentences.

These questions can help students with a variety of writing assignments across a range of disciplines.

1. What’s your point? Tell me directly, and fairly quickly, what you want to convince me of. Don’t make me guess, assume, or wonder what your thesis is. If you do not show me exactly what it is that you want to argue, how will you convince me to accept your side of the issue? If you don’t have a clearly stated thesis, you can be sure I’ll start to think you don’t really know what you want to say—or perhaps that you may not even know what you’re talking about.

2. Who are you? Show me what gives you the right to talk about this subject. I expect you to establish your own credibility or authority to influence my thinking, because I’m not likely to agree with you if I don’t respect your knowledge about the subject. Do you have a personal link to this issue that makes it important to you? Did you come up with your ideas alone, or are you aware of others who have written about this? (If I care deeply about this issue, I’m probably going to have read them, and I’ll expect you to have done so too.) Show that you are part of the conversation on this topic by referring to what others have said and presenting your view of their ideas.

3. But what about this? I’d be more strongly persuaded if you had anticipated some of my objections. Don’t simply tell me what you think; tell me why the arguments that oppose yours are weak. Try to demolish possible critical replies to your thesis; make your stand defensively as well as offensively. This will show me how deeply you’ve thought through the issue and how well you can look at your own ideas from a perspective different from your own.

4. Why should I care? After I read your essay, I should not be left thinking, “So what?” Show me the relevance your thesis has to address larger issues—those that keep it from being trivial, specialized, or remote. What other problems does it solve or create? Have you revealed some deeper level of the topic most people would not have noticed? I won’t be persuaded by stereotypical thinking that reaches obvious conclusions easily arrived at by anyone.

5. Are you wasting my time? As the king said to Alice in Wonderland, “Begin at the beginning and go on until the end. Then stop.” Make your case efficiently and economically, but show me enough supporting evidence to be convincing. If you want to persuade me of your thesis, make sure you have my full attention at all times. Beware of digressions and writing that tries too hard to impress. Don’t drown me with too many thoughts from other people that I could just as easily look up for myself and that muffle your own voice. Remember that there is a persuasive elegance in simplicity and directness.

Christopher Baker is an English professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University, GA.

Excerpted from Five Questions from Missouri, The Teaching Professor, December, 2008.