A friend of mine, Jim, is a successful SAT/ACT tutor who’s been in the business for some time. In a typical year, he tells me, several of his tutees get an 800 on the SAT’s reading and writing section. Now that your fall composition courses are in full swing, you may find useful—and possibly surprising—his perspective on things that affect many students’ ability to read critically and write persuasively.
“They have trouble with irony, if it’s good irony,” Jim told me. I was puzzled. My impression is that students adore irony and other rhetorical devices with which people make their points indirectly. “That’s why many of them don’t like Jane Austen,” he said. “They don’t realize she’s funny.”
Indeed, young people’s idea of irony can be heavy-handed, and when they employ irony themselves, they tend to lack control over it. Maybe they don’t even necessarily recognize subtle irony? By now we’re all used to the idea that tone is easy to misinterpret in emails and texts—in writing, that is. I wonder whether the modern practice of adding emoji to everyday communications is undermining readers’ ability to recognize, and writers’ ability to convey, irony and similar matters of tone in plain words.
But “the biggest thing” he notices is that students “infer too much,” Jim told me. “This is the big problem of our time! They don’t see what’s there; they see what they expect is there. They bring their own perspective from previous things they’ve read and seen, movies and such. They think the writer is saying something expected.”
That observation, of course, applies directly to students’ ability to read critically, but it has implications for their ability to write well too.
“It’s hard to write something that tells readers exactly what you mean without saying the obvious. And saying the obvious makes readers think you don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Jim said. “The trick is to know what to leave out. A good writer is not only telling you things but also giving you clues to what they’re implying.” That is, saying the obvious is counterproductive. Not only does it validate the viewpoint of readers who expect to be reading the expected, but it risks boring them.
“Teach your students to trust their readers,” Jim said. “Writers always have to wonder what the reaction of the reader is going to be.” Naturally, you, the instructor, are the reader your students really need to please. But often, let’s say when you’ve assigned a persuasive essay, you may want them to write as if they are addressing an audience that is interested in the topic and knows the basic facts about it but doesn’t necessarily see it their way.
“For the student, it’s a role-play,” Jim said. “They should do what actors are sometimes taught to do: play to one person—in this case, probably a person who’s not the instructor.”
As writers, no doubt most of us are inclined to imagine we understand our readers, hypothetical or real, better than we really do. (This is where not inferring too much sneaks back in.) Recognizing this tendency—and not projecting ourselves onto them—is a first step toward knowing our audience better and therefore being better able to persuade them, inform them, hold their interest, or whatever our intended purpose is.
“The reader a student is writing for should be someone they know,” Jim continued. “Someone who’s a little different from them, but with things in common.” Of course, all of us have many things in common—mainly the fundamental things. So in a way, the deeper the subject, the easier it may be to find and speak to that common ground.
“With truly great writers,” Jim said, “you can read something of theirs from 500 B.C. and say to yourself, How do they know me?”
But if your student writers can begin to elicit that reaction from someone—like you or their ideal reader—who lives in their own time and place, surely you can count that as an accomplishment that you and they can be proud of.
Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff @mac.com.
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.
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