Week Five: becoming a more critical reader

Please welcome back guest editor Deb Williams who tweets as @mannahattamamma and blogs at MannaHatta Mamma. If you have any questions or need any clarification on today’s topic, please feel free to begin a discussion in comments.

If you’re here just to hang out, the yeah write #68 hangout grid is open.

So what?

While I was getting my PhD, I taught composition to first-year college students, including a unit on “the personal essay.” Students wrote about all types of adolescent existential malaise: sex, death, anorexia, divorce, bleak music.  Their emotions were pure but their prose? Dreadful. I felt like a brute grading their essays; the low grades seemed to say “sorry, kid, your grandmother had a C- death.”

In those early teaching days, I hadn’t yet found my question, the question with which I now approach all writing situations, whether my own or my students’.  It’s a question that sometimes sounds rude because it cuts through straight to the bone: “so what?”

Searching for their stories’ “so what” jostles people into reconsidering their prose. I know we all want to believe that our painful experiences/cute toddlers/fights with spouses will speak for themselves, will resonate with our readers.

But guess what?  They don’t.

All our stories need shaping, honing, pruning. They need, in short, a “so what.”

Finding the “so what” can be a brutal process because it involves carving away the excess baggage; it means cutting away the pretty image, the graceful sentence, the interesting side-note.

When you find that “so what” moment, though, when suddenly all the pieces fall into place and you find your real subject…that’s the moment, as a writer, when it all feels worthwhile.

Our readers might not be asking themselves “so what” as they read our posts, but the absence of a clear “so what” will bore them right off the page. Without that “so what,” our readers don’t feel a compelling reason to keep reading.  The pleasure of a clear “so what” takes many forms: the “so what” of Twilight is not the same “so what” as Wolf Hall; the “so what” of a post about an autistic child learning to write his name is not the same “so what” as a story about the time your kid pooped in the bathtub. It’s the question I should have asked those long-ago students: yes, your grandmother died and you were sad, but so what?

When the submissions to the yeah write grid start to all run together as one humongous blog post, the entries successfully answering their “so what” will be the ones to stand out.

Voting is still open!

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