How to Make It Matter

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Even though I teach college composition, not creative writing, it surprises me how often the two overlap — how often the principles of good writing pertain to both.

For example, this week my beginning class has been choosing topics for their researched argument papers, so we’ve talked a lot about what makes a good topic. It’s an important first step, after all, because their grades are at stake. A “bad” topic might make an A impossible.

Meanwhile, I read some of the report drafts of my intermediate class and realized that we needed to have an immediate discussion about how to avoid “dry, yeastless factuality” (borrowing Yann Martel’s description from Life of Pi). Several of the reports gave one fact after another, either putting me to sleep or making my head spin from too many stats in a row. Because they “publish” their reports online for a real audience (besides me), we needed to remedy that problem ASAP.

The intermediate class’s reports needed some life, and the beginning class needed to know how to start breathing life into a topic.

I can’t take credit for this breakdown, because it comes from the textbook my beginning class uses, called From Inquiry to Academic Writing, but here it is. Having a good topic isn’t enough. You also need to decide on a situation that illustrates the topic and shows what’s at stake. Then you need to show the issues involved, or in other words what conflicts are preventing the situation from being easily resolved. Finally, you need to ask a question that sets the direction of the writing — the possibilities for resolution that you’re going to explore.

  • Topic

  • Situation

  • Issues

  • Question

I showed them an article from a year ago in The New Yorker about healthcare reform (Atul Gawande’s “Getting There from Here” in the Jan. 26, 2009 issue) that began by describing situations that had led to healthcare reform in other countries, followed by describing the current situation in America, with 57 million Americans owing medical debt, illustrated by one particular example of a woman having an emergency C-section and owing $17,000 for it. Then it described the obstacles to reform, how most everyone agrees it’s necessary but can’t agree on how to do it because of various conflicting opinions and perspectives. Then it posed the question, “What can we learn from the path other countries have taken to healthcare reform?” The remainder of the article explored those comparisons.

We discussed how this is the key to make your writing “not boring”! This is how you create tension and make your reader want to keep reading. This is how you avoid being dry.

One student in the back raised his hand and said, “Doesn’t this apply to creative writing, too? I mean, isn’t this what makes a good story as well?”

Yes! He’s absolutely right.

My current WIP borrows the topic of growing up from Peter Pan and asks the question, “What does it mean to grow up?” But in my first draft or two, I’d skipped too much of the situation and issues, so I was posing the question and exploring it without real tension behind it. I had to back up and really focus on the situation and the issues, really bring in the tension — what’s at stake? what are the conflicts? — so that the question mattered.

In fact, as an intermediate class, that’s what we ended up titling the breakdown: How to Make Your Writing Matter. If it doesn’t matter, why would anyone bother to read it?

What do you think? What have you read that’s done this particularly well? How have you noticed that these four pieces impact writing?

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