My writing workshops take participants step-by-step through the process of preparing, composing, and reviewing a paragraph with a peer reader. In this post I want to say something about that last component.
In the workshop, it only takes 6 minutes, during which each participant receives three minutes of feedback from another participant. In “real life”, as part of your regular writing practice, I suggest you work yourself up to being able to receive feedback for 6 and eventually 9 minutes on an individual paragraph, which, remember, took you 18 or 27 minutes to write. By giving your paragraph to another person to respond to for about a third of that time, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to see whether it works. You’re testing it as a piece of of writing. On the basis of this experience, you can then plan your future writing moments, and you can begin to think about how to arrange your paragraphs into longer essays and papers and chapters and books. I’ll return to that at the end.
When doing this exercise, please remember that it is, precisely, an experience, not a judgment. You are not asking your reader to tell you whether you are a good writer or even a good thinker; you are not asking them to form an opinion about you as a writer, or about your paragraph as a piece of writing. You are literally asking them to read you, and to let you watch and listen to them do it. You are going to give them a paragraph that you have composed deliberately to support, elaborate, or defend a key sentence, and you’re going to find out whether your reader thinks you supported, elaborated, or defended that sentence. If the reader thinks you’ve done something else, that’s just a fact you have a face; next time, you’ll try to write a paragraph that is clearer about its intention and posture. Then you’ll test that one.
Choose a reader that can represent the sort of reader you had in mind while writing. Remember that this should be a “peer”: someone in your discipline that you respect as an intellectual equal, someone who should be able to understand what you’re trying to do, and someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong. Of course, you don’t think you’re wrong; if you are very uncertain about this, you’ve chosen the wrong paragraph to share; it’s just that your reader is someone you would take seriously if they thought you were. Indeed, if your paragraph is defending an idea you expect your reader to disagree with, then you want the reader to think you’re wrong. That was the point of writing the thing! In that case, the last thing you want is for them to think you’re right, which would mean they had misunderstood you (or you had misunderstood them). But if that’s the case, so be it; you want to know the truth about your reader. Sit back and learn.
Give your reader your paragraph, either on a screen or on a piece of paper, but in a format that is plain and easy to read. Set a timer for 6 or 9 minutes. The session begins with the reader reading your paragraph out loud. They have never seen this paragraph before so they have only your words on the page to work with, in the order you put them there. You are going to experience their struggle to pass them through their mind in a meaningful way. You will learn the extent of their “interpretive charity”; you will hear it in their voice and see it in their face. You are hearing and seeing a human being make sense of your words in real time. It can be an intense experience (if you let it) but it only lasts a minute or so. Take it in. Do not help the reader get past the typos and spelling mistakes you now suddenly realize you left in — let the reader puzzle over them and make the necessary adjustment and move on. Do not nod or smile or groan or cringe or otherwise communicate to your reader whether they’re doing it right. Put on a pokerface. Relax. Just experience the act of being read.
“I was never here,” Ben Lerner says to his reader. “Understand? You never saw me.” It’s like that.
Now, have your reader tell you what the key sentence is. If you have written the paragraph deliberately, like I told you to, then you know what the right answer is. You know what you were trying so say and which sentence in the paragraph declares this intention simply and plainly. Just have your reader point that sentence out, whichever one they think contains the “take home message” of the paragraph. If they’re not sure, let them think out loud about what it might be, let them weigh their options until they make up their mind. As before, maintain a stoical silence. This isn’t a conversation, it’s just you watching someone else puzzle out your meaning in real time. It may even be that they decide you’ve got two key sentences and that it should really have been two paragraphs. All this will be useful to you the next time you write.
You had decided not only what to say, but also how to say it. You adopted a deliberate rhetorical posture to try to get the reader to believe, understand, or accept something for the sake of argument. So you’ll be interested to hear whether your reader thinks you are trying support, elaborate, or defend the key sentence they have just identified. How does the reader feel you are addressing them? Or maybe the reader feels like you have posed the fourth difficulty: you are assuming that the reader is bored with the truth of the key sentence and you are trying to help them find the same excitement that you feel about it. Or, again, maybe the reader isn’t quite sure what you’re trying to accomplish. It’s not clear why they had to read this paragraph. These things are sometimes hard to hear, but ultimately good to know.
So far, this may have taken three, four, or five minutes. In the time that remains, let the reader say whatever comes to mind, preferably about the content of the paragraph, not its form. Of course, the most striking thing about the paragraph may be how well or badly it was written, but in both cases what you’re listening for is how your language got in the way (perhaps by being a little too clever!) of your ideas. Ideally, the reader will spend the next few minutes telling you what your paragraph made them think about, wonder about, worry about, curious about, etc. If that is the writing, your writing needs work. Much better if the reader says, “Nice try! But I still disagree. And here’s why…” Or the reader may say they have finally understood something that has puzzled them for awhile and they may tell what that puzzle was. Or the reader may express doubts about the quality of your evidence and suggest methods that would be better suited. Once again, you’re getting information that will be useful to you the next time you write.
When the time runs out, stop. Sit in silence with your reader for a minute. Let it sink in. Then say, “Thank you,” be thankful, and let both of you get on with your days. You have learned something about your writing by learning something about your reader. As Virginia Woolf said, “Knowing who you’re writing for, is knowing how to write.” These six or nine minutes taught you how to write in precisely that sense.