The Best and Worst Thing My Teacher Ever Taught Me About Writing
As a child, I was a voracious writer. I journalled, wrote creative stories and composed elaborate letters to family members. Looking back, I realize that I enjoyed writing then for the same reasons I enjoy it now. It's the joy of crafting something, and in the process escaping into a meditative state.
Some things that our childhood school teachers say stay with us our whole lives. I remember for one assignment writing a story about a night at the movies with my parents - an exciting experience for my eleven-year-old self. My teacher’s comment was: “Tara you are such a great writer. When I saw the topic of the story I wasn't expecting it to be very interesting - but it was!”
Impression 1: the topic you write about matters, but so does how you write about it.
Sometime later in the year, I showed the same teacher a story I had written for fun and she asked me:
“But what’s the point of it?” As a kid I could tell that this was a special moment in which an adult was talking to me on an adult level. I saw that it wasn't a dismissive question, my teacher was probing me to become a more critical writer. But I was mortified and confused; I had no idea writing had to fulfill a purpose!
Impression 2: your writing has to have an articulable point.
Whether you're writing non-academic reflection pieces, autobiographical accounts, adventure stories and fantasy, or writing academic articles and research papers, asking yourself "what is the point" of this piece can be both useful and hurtful to your writing.
I find the question "What is the point?" helps in my writing process.
Why it was the Best Thing a Teacher Ever Taught Me
- When shaping an academic piece, a writer must always keep in mind the ultimate question they are trying to answer. I have a friend who says that whenever she wrote papers for school – from a simple report to her Masters thesis – she kept her research question on a sticky note above her computer. This guides the research process, keeps the flow of the writing coherent, and leads the piece to a strong conclusion.
- Even for non-academic writing pieces, asking yourself: “what is the point” can be useful. Let’s say, for example, you’re composing a nature-writing piece in which you want to really convey the emotion of a landscape. But you find that you’re not using peaceful adjectives, the piece has started to become more heavily focused on your internal thoughts, or you spend too much time describing the river when really it was the snow covered fields that captured your attention. Asking “what is the point” directs your writing. Through the process of asking yourself this question, and comparing it to what you’ve already written, you may find that the “point” is actually something other than what you thought it was.
- Maybe you think that the “point” of your writing is to publish something that attracts as many readers as possible. I would argue that this is not the "point," this is a goal for your end piece. To target the point, ask yourself what you want individual readers to come away with after reading your piece.
Example: “I’m going to write about an awkward teenage girl who realizes that her life’s destiny is to become a sexy vampire. Thus giving awkward girls around the world hope that something bigger and better is out there waiting for them."
Why it was the Worst Thing a Teacher Ever Taught Me
- Starting the writing process with this thought: “but what is the point?” can be a recipe for writers' block. While later in the writing process it can help you to shape your paper/article, etc..., it strangles the creative flow. Many writers craft their pieces by throwing ideas onto paper, and seeing where the spontaneous creativity takes them. The “point” of the piece can thus evolve, and turn into something much more meaningful as research comes together and ideas emerge.
- When writing a more academic piece with a solid research question (Why are GMOs bad? Do I Need a Degree in Journalism? How can the Farm Bill be Revised?) the “point” of the piece seems to be relatively clear. But if you’re like me, then there’s always a part of you that doubts whether this is a question that really needs to be asked, whether there are more important questions I should be spending my time on, and what difference will it make anyways if it gets published – will anyone even read it after all?! With such a slew of “what is the point" thoughts, it makes the whole writing process feel burdensome.
- The ultimate “point” of any piece of writing can just be to tell a story. It’s been studied: story telling is as old a practice as the caveman. Human societies use stories to reinforce their culture, as stories get shared they become part of a mass psyche that unites us under a similar world view. We are enamored by stories. If you’ve ever read story books aloud to children, some supernatural phenomenon happens that turns a room full of screaming toddlers into a circle of spellbound angels.
- Even if it's not in typical "story form," writing serves to fill an important cultural and psychological human need to share our human existence. Take biographies for example: we are curious about other peoples’ lives. And how satisfying it is to read about a fictional character’s emotions, and be able to relate to them exactly. Reading or writing about the news is a way of sharing what is happening around the world, to people like and unlike ourselves. If we are too caught up in "what is the point" of sharing this or that story, we may not share at all.
How Do You Overcome "What is the point?" Fears?
If it’s an academic piece, feel secure in the fact that your piece will add to the quilt of research that is out there. In some way your unique take on a question will add to the fabric. Someone will read your piece when they won’t read others, or be inspired by one or two sentences that you really nailed.
If it’s a non-academic, story-telling piece, then remember: the point of any story is to simply exist. We have a human need to share our experiences and emotions with others, just as much as we innately desire to read about others experiences.
This brings me back to the lesson I learned from my teacher's first comment: What you write about matters, but so does how you write about it. So writers, write well and with passion, and never doubt that your craft serves a purpose!