The fourth principle I listed in my opening post is “talk,” which I then elaborated with the Writing Center saying, “Every writer needs a reader.” It only now strikes me that those unfamiliar with Writing Center work at its best might find that juxtaposition strange. What does talking have to do with finding readers for your work in progress?
Any writer needs a lot of readers; some readers may prefer to respond through written comments, and such comments are valuable. But your mode of engagement with your readers matters as much as the substance of their responses.
It’s important to have some readers with whom you talk through your ideas, your writing, and your process. Not all of your readers need to fall into this category, but it’s worth having a writing group or a writing partner—or a few writing groups or partners—who encourage you to articulate your aims and key interventions with a piece of writing through conversation.
Things sound different when you say them out loud. In particular, your ideas sound different when you say them out loud to someone else—to a concrete other person. J. L. Conrad, one of my writing partners and a longtime Writing Center instructor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says that such a person may not be part of “the audience you’re writing for, but is someone who can bear witness to your writing process.”
Bearing witness to a writer’s process doesn’t necessarily mean talking about it, though that’s an important element of consultations for some writers. What’s essential for any writer is talking through ideas and drafts—that is, talking through the actual substance of a piece. At their best, consultations allow writers to work out loud, in dialogue with another person, whether that means figuring out how to revise a particular paragraph, how to restructure an article, or how to frame an intervention rhetorically for a particular journal.
All of these are fun. For me, perhaps the most fun is talking through the argument itself. What are you saying? What are the stakes of your argument for readers in your field? This is where an outside reader is really useful. While a reader in your field might share your knowledge of and perspective on debates in it—or, more likely, have their own differing and possibly entrenched view of those same debates—an outside reader won’t know too much about them. That forces you to explain the state of the field as you understand it.
It’s often in this part of the conversation that “aha!” moments happen. It’s not that a writer necessarily discovers anything totally new in talking through her arguments, but that she articulates the upshots in a pared-back way that is often surprising even to her. And it’s because she’s talking to a curious outside reader who listens, asks questions, and wants to understand, but doesn’t have the same training and frames of reference. So the writer has to strip the story down to its essentials—explain basically what the consensus is, in lay terms; explain how she’s taking issue with or revising or tweaking that consensus or assumption; and explain why that matters.
Usually this is the point at which I say, “Oh, now I get it! That’s really good — write that down!” And the writer says, “What did I say?” And I read it back to her from my scribbled notes—or sometimes text her pictures of those notes after the consultation is over.
Such realizations come from the writer, but out of the conversation. In combination with diligent research, reading, free-writing, and drafting outside writing group meetings, insights developed in conversation with writing partners can help a writer move a project forward more quickly.
Even if the exact words you say to your writing partner don’t end up being useful (and often they do), the act of articulation helps you clarify the point in your own mind and take that clarity with you back into the draft.