- Books, Literature, and Writing
Writing Well Using Socratic Questioning
Socratic Questioning: An Introduction
“I can’t understand what the instructor is wanting me to write?” …or, “I have no idea what to write about?” Or one of the most famous writer’s block justifications of all time, “I don’t know how to get started.”
If you have ever been asked any of these questions, or even if you have asked them yourself, you are not alone. Finding a quality topic to write about and actually getting down to the task at hand are two of the most prevalent speed bumps staring down today’s students or business professionals. The truth is that without adequate writing skills, your ability to succeed in any job or profession is limited. There is no sugar-coating that reality. In today’s technical landscapes, where communication is fast-paced and essential, the written word is becoming increasingly important. And being able to express your words intelligently with organizational correctness is vital.
Writing can be fearful, yet rewarding; intimidating, yet invigorating; and writing can be the reality of both worlds for many people. Staring blankly at a piece of paper or computer screen with nothing to add is anxiety defined; especially with a deadline looming. For those times as new writers, or experienced writers facing lapses in creativity, this hub is for you. My hope is to provide through a series of short hubs some of the simplest ways to battle the ever-present, but never invited, beast known as writer’s block. My approach will be simple yet steeped in history, ancient history in fact. So sit back and take a few minutes to soak in a writing clinic based on Socratic questioning.
Who is this Socrates guy anyway?
Socrates was undeniably one of the most influential thinkers of his time. His teaching method unmatched in that he taught students by asking questions. Which if you stop and think about it, is how many of you (and I) learn. This is where I would like to begin, by introducing Socratic questioning as a basis for writing; which is, after all, a series of answered questions—be they fictional or non-fictional. So, without further digression, let us begin.
Socratic Questioning: Questions Requiring Conceptual Clarification
Clarifying a concept is one of the most essential skills in writing. You see it everywhere. Describing a situation, or retelling a story in your own words, is just one example of clarifying concepts. The business and academic worlds are full of reports and presentations that require you, the writer, to explain something—something potentially complex—in simple and understandable terms. In short, writers need to know how to write to explain, and by using Socratic questions, such a task can be simplified.
Now is a good time for an example.
Suppose you are writing a paper comparing one view of illegal immigration versus another. I know, the topic is broad and needs refining, but for our purposes let us roll with it.
Now, given that such a topic can be approached from many angles, you must know where to begin. For me, answering a set of questions relating to the overall concept of the paper is a great place to jump off—by asking Socratic questions, of course. Here is a group of conceptually clarifying questions that will no doubt get your writing muscles in motion.
- Why do you say that?
Wow! That is a great question. It gets your mind off the brakes and gets you moving. Placed in context of our hypothetical paper, this question might be restated: Why do you feel that illegal immigration is such a big deal? Your answer, although somewhat subjective, may contain a great thesis statement or theme. Now you are ready to answer another question.
- And what exactly does this mean?
Now you have gone from a basic introduction of how you feel about illegal immigration to the basis of why you feel this way. Your reply can be the basis by which you build an argument, collect main points, and organize supporting details. Writing really is, as I tell all my students, a creative process. You create your writing by asking and answering a series of questions. Now getting back to our paper, other Socratic questions clarifying concepts can be:
- How does your view on illegal immigration relate to what others are saying?
This is where you can go into the comparison part of your paper by introducing competing viewpoints. I must note, however, that as you proceed in answering these conceptual questions make note of all your sources and properly cite. This will pay huge dividends in the end; maybe not in this paper but in future papers you will write.
Gaining Traction Over Writer's Block:
By now, you should have a solid head grip on your writer’s block. You have answered a pair—if not more—of insightful questions and your thoughts are coming through. From here are a few more questions you can ask to really get your writing in full throttle. For example:
- What is the condition or nature of (insert your topic here)?
This is a great way to bring in relevant media and/or current events surrounding your topic.
- Can you provide other examples of similar issues?
By citing more than one instance where your topic has been an issue adds a better grip of credibility to your writing.
- What are you really trying to say here?
This is an inquiry that serves up a relevant serving of subjective opinion; as long as it it is based on facts and substantiated research.
A final question you may ask regarding clarifying concepts sounds rather simple, but under its surface hides great meaning. This question is:
- Can you tell me the problem in your own words, please?
Here is where you rephrase, paraphrase, and own your writing.
Final Thoughts, For Now:
Hopefully, by utilizing thought-provoking Socratic questions in your writing, that often dreaded beast known as writer’s block will wisely steer clear. In the next few weeks, I will be adding to this series with further Socratic questioning for your writing pleasure.
Thanks for hanging in there. Excellent words are waiting!