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Writing Well Using Socratic Questioning

Updated on September 23, 2011
Bust of Socrates
Bust of Socrates | Source

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.

Enjoy.

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.

Socrates: School is in session.
Socrates: School is in session. | Source

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!

Comments

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    • Rob Jundt profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Jundt 

      6 years ago from Midwest USA

      Ehnaira05,

      Thanks for the kind comment. Just keep on asking yourself similar questions while writing and before you know it the words will follow.

    • Ehnaira05 profile image

      Ehnaira05 

      6 years ago from Charlotte, Florida

      Very nice Rob hope I can do best like you.

    • Rob Jundt profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Jundt 

      7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Parrster, I agree. Writing is a series of answered questions. One piece of advice I offer students is to begin thinking small to big, with a long term question in mind, of course. By having smaller questions answered, many times newer and more probing questions are created. This way, the writing process is not as daunting or overwhelming. Thanks for reading. Your comments are always appreciated.

    • klanguedoc profile image

      Kevin Languedoc 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Great advice Rob. Your hub was well presented and thanks for the sound advice which I will try to incorporate into my own hubs.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Great hub topic and very well presented. As you allude, Socratic questioning is what we often do naturally. I think writing can sometimes act as a brake to the process because it requires transmitting thought to paper. Often what seems so clear in my own thinking, proves abominably difficult to concisely express in writing; to the point I don't want to even try. From their, my natural laziness takes over :)

      Voted up

    • Rob Jundt profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Jundt 

      7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Thanks silver poet. I appreciate your vote!

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 

      7 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      Extremely useful. Voted up!

    • Rob Jundt profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Jundt 

      7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Space age,

      Thanks for the kind comment. And yes, any way you can get students to write is usually a good thing. I have a few more chapters to write so stayed tuned.

      Thanks again!

    • Space Age profile image

      Space Age 

      7 years ago

      As a home schooling mom I am always looking for ways to help my children become excellent writers. I LOVE this hub! I will definitely be sharing this with my kids this week!

    • Rob Jundt profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob Jundt 

      7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Maralexa & kschimmel:

      Thank you both for such nice comments! I truly believe that if we learn to ask better questions, writing would become less of a chore and more enjoyable for many people. Thanks again for stopping by.

      RJ

    • kschimmel profile image

      Kimberly Schimmel 

      7 years ago from North Carolina, USA

      Great questions inspire great ideas.

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 

      7 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

      This is excellent Rob, you have really sparked my attention here. I can totally relate to this type of idea-generating process. I can put this to use immediately. Thnx so much.

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