by Burke Nixon
The first time I ever turned in a piece of writing in graduate school, my professor—the late, great fiction writer Barry Hannah—scrawled these words in all caps in one of the margins: “WHY AM I READING THIS?” This wasn’t even his most memorable (or critical) comment on that piece, but it’s a question that still sticks with me. Before that, I’d never fully considered that a reader might ask that question. I’d never realized that a piece of writing has to actually earn its existence, and earn it early on.
This might seem like an obvious thing to remember whenever we’re writing something: we have to give our audience a good reason to keep reading. But how do we do it? How can we get our writing to earn its existence early on? The more I read writing that I love, from fiction to nonfiction, creative writing to academic writing, the more I notice certain common elements that give the audience a clear reason for reading.
Here’s one: compelling problems. Introducing a compelling problem works for almost all types of writing. Humans love to hear about problems. If we introduce a problem, there’s tension and suspense right away. If I tell you about getting a flat tire on the way to work, you won’t wonder why I just told you that story. The problem earns the story’s existence. But think about how you’ll react if I say this: “Oh man, I gotta tell you about my drive to work today. So I was driving and my car drove fine and then I got here on time.” You’d be wondering why you’re listening to this, waiting for me to introduce a problem. And if I make you wait for too much longer, you’d tune me out, right?
Compelling problems drive a good story, but they also drive successful academic writing. In all academic disciplines, when a writer introduces a compelling problem early on—either a practical problem or a theoretical one—the reader will usually be far less inclined to ask, “Why am I reading this?” They know why they should continue reading: to see if the writer will be able to offer a convincing argument, perspective, or solution related to the problem.
Problems lead to two other elements that can keep nonfiction readers reading: questions and debates. When a writer introduces a compelling question or debate early on in a piece of writing, the piece automatically begins to earn its existence, rather than simply making an argument or sharing information without any clear purpose. But the “compelling” part is key. It’s not enough to just introduce a problem, question, debate or some combination of the three at the beginning of a piece of writing. You have to make an explicit case for why that problem, question, or debate matters.
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein make this point in They Say/I Say, a short guide to academic writing that I use in my FWIS courses. In fact, the book has a chapter called “Saying Why It Matters.” Here’s how they put it: “Rather than assume that audiences will know why their claims matter, all writers need to answer the ‘so what?’ and ‘who cares?’ questions up front.” Graff and Birkenstein explain that readers will want to know the “real-world applications and consequences” of the issue at hand, as well as wanting to know who has already been debating this issue. Giving your audience answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions helps your audience see exactly why they should keep reading.
And this isn’t just a writing issue, of course. As Graff and Birkenstein often note, “saying why it matters” is just as important in lectures or presentations. We’ve all been to presentations that make us want to shout “WHY AM I LISTENING TO THIS?” When a presenter fails to introduce a compelling problem (or question or debate) or make its relevance clear, we find ourselves thinking of other things. On the other hand, when the presenter actually succeeds at this, we find ourselves engaged. Introducing a compelling problem right away is just as effective in speaking to an audience as it is in writing. Maybe even more so.
As with most writing and communication advice, all of this is much easier said than done. It can take a lot of work to discover a compelling problem and find the best way to introduce it. But it’s a good start to know that you need to try to do this if you want to keep your audience reading or listening. It’s also worth paying attention to the specific ways that other writers and speakers succeed or fail at this. Learn from their successes and failures, and your audience will never question the existence of what you have to say.