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To Become a More Successful Writer, Learn to Understand Readers

Posted on Wednesday August 22, 2012 by Michael Keathley

There’s an adage that “good writers are good readers.” This helps to remind us that there is a strong connection between composing and reading. A quick overview of the traditional steps in the writing process, alongside the typical way an audience reads a composition will shed light on this connection and help you become a more successful writer.

Prewriting/Invention
The first step in the writing process is often labeled ‘prewriting,’ but ‘invention’ is perhaps a more accurate term. Invention is a tried and true stage of development in which writers explore all possibilities in terms of creating a composition. Brett and Kay McKay provide an excellent overview of the types of considerations a writer may have at the invention stage:

Who is the audience? Not only does this imply their demographic identity (e.g., education level), but also their experiences, perceptions, attitudes, needs, knowledge, and other such characteristics that may influence how a writer and reader may connect.

What evidence exists and what will be most convincing to the audience? Writers often conduct research into a topic, looking carefully at the facts, statistics, and other such information that may help them clarify or prove a point. Writers also consider what evidence or types of evidence would be most persuasive for their readers.

What rhetorical devices may/may not be conducive to reaching the audience? If the goal is to persuade readers, for example, will an emotional appeal be helpful or should the writer focus solely on a rational appeal by sticking to objective support (e.g., facts and statistics). Is the timing of an idea fitting for this context?

How should the information be presented to readers? Although this question dates back at least 2,000 years, it is even more relevant now when writers have so many options for sharing their ideas with an audience via different means of technology (e.g., a standard essay in paragraphs or a slide presentation?). (26 January, 2011)

Now reverse this information for readers. Known as the constructivist literary theory (2008), writers should be aware that readers also consider who the writer may be. Readers also bring with them their own experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and other such demographic details. These help them to interpret the information shared by the writer. Likewise, how well the audience accepts the evidence and rhetorical devices used by the writer helps to determine the level of reader engagement.

Therefore, the prewriting/invention step is the most important step to take for writers who want to succeed.

Drafting
Once writers complete the discovery process in the prewriting/invention stage, it’s time to draft. It is at this stage that a composition is shaped into a specific structure. It may be that an academic essay is needed with a clear thesis statement, topic sentences, supporting paragraphs, source integration, documentation, and a conclusion. However, this structure may also be a business letter, a PowerPoint presentation, a narrated video, or any other configuration required by the context. Additionally, the structure also helps to set parameters around the topic and aids in the unity and coherence of the composition. Basically, the drafting stage is where the writer sets down a concrete message for the reader with a good flow of thought so that it is audience-friendly.

Readers expect this. For instance, a professor who assigns an academic paper and co-workers who attend your presentation will both expect to see that standard essay structure or some sort of slide presentation, respectively. Readers’ expectations about structure must be clearly met within the first few seconds of sharing, otherwise, the audience is lost. I once had a job applicant write of his interest in a composition teaching position on 17 sticky notes stuck to my office door. Needless to say, I never called him.

Moreover, readers expect to be able to decipher the meaning of the composition as efficiently as possible. A strong structure will result in a strongly engaged reader; however, a weak structure will produce a disengaged reader. To get your reader to follow your message you must be a good leader. As Colorado State University explains, this fits in with the cognitive reading theory which basically means that readers are trying to decode a message that must be properly encoded by the writer. This is not to say that readers are passive in this process. On the contrary, as CSU emphasizes, readers are a part of this conversation with the writer, bringing with them their own experiences and viewpoints (1993-2012).

Writers must keep in mind that their compositions are conversational bridges between themselves and their readers that must be well constructed to support a meaningful exchange.

Revising
Often defined as the step where writers “look again (and again)” at how well they have drafted their ideas, revising is clearly an important step in the composing process when all of the above is considered. Writers should never assume they have communicated their message to readers in the best possible way, especially after the first draft is written. Rather, revising involves checking the content of a piece carefully. Vanderbilt University provides a concise list of “Questions to Ask When You’re Revising a Paper,” (17 February, 2008) that mostly focus on communicating the message.

This also, perhaps, best fits under cognitive reading theory because the audience will also be reflecting upon your message. They may also be asking themselves if they truly understand the thesis of the academic essay you’ve written, or they may be evaluating the evidence you provided by integrating and documenting sources to see if they can accept your claim. The more important the topic to the reader, the more they will “look again (and again)” at what you’ve written.

Writers must be prepared for this scrutiny by readers, especially in the academic and professional contexts. This is why not only revising but also editing is so critical to being a successful writer.

Editing
This is perhaps the least favorite step in the writing process. Who likes to check grammar and mechanics, right? It’s vital to remember, however, that the purpose of editing is to really refine everything that has been described above. It is those pesky little grammatical and mechanical techniques that can help writers ensure that their message is optimally encoded for the reader to easily decipher and accept. The grammar and mechanics can work for you as a writer to fully engage the reader. Editing is about more than just having a comma in the correct place. Consider it an offensive strategy to win over readers.

What does this mean? As Laura R. Micciche wrote:

“The grammatical choices we make—including pronoun use, active or passive verb constructions, and sentence patterns—represent relations between writers and the world they live in. Word choice and sentence structure are an expression of the way we attend to the words of others, the way we position ourselves in relation to others.” (“Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar,”) College Composition and Communication. June 2004).

In other words, writers who intend to succeed with readers must focus their editing beyond the seemingly arbitrary rules; they must use grammar and mechanics in a strategic way that helps to get their message across to readers. Consider how Micciche, for example, makes use of the dashes to add emphasis to her examples. Commas would have been fine here, but the hyphens add much more force and meaning for readers.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center provides some excellent revising and editing strategies if you’d like to learn more.

Presentation
Implied in the discussion above is the need for writers to make a good presentation of their work to readers. This includes not only engaging the audience in content, but also meeting their expectations as far as structure (e.g., standard essay or business letter format). Documents should be free of any stray marks, unintended smells (e.g., cigarette smoke or perfume), and submitted in accordance with any additional reader preferences. For instance, a professor might require students to submit all paper copies in a folder or all electronic copies via a dropbox within the course site. Whatever the readers’ preferences, present your work accordingly.

Overall, it should be understood that the writing process is not linear; neither is the reading process. Your audience may spiral back and forth through the above reading strategies. Keep in mind the permanence of writing allows audiences a long opportunity for review. Being prepared with the above strategies should help you become a more successful writer.

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