Thinking about our writing from the perspective of our readers

The issue I want to reflect on in this post stems from some writing and rewriting I have been doing on a prospective journal article recently. A conversation with a good friend about the revisions I have needed to work on, following advice from peer reviewers, turned to an interesting question: how would I write the revised paper from the perspective or standpoint of my readers, and how would this improve my writing?

When I run writing workshops with students, I almost always start with ‘APC&E’: Audience, Purpose, Context, and Evaluation. I am not sure where this comes from – I was taught the APC part as an undergraduate student, and again as a tutor of undergraduate students several years later, and added the E a few years ago to account for the emergence of rubrics that students need to read and interpret before handing in a task for assessment (as opposed to only after if at all, as when I was s student). This is the best place to start, with any piece of writing, whether creative or academic, for a lecturer or tutor, or for a journal editor.APC&E

  • Audience: Who am I writing to? How much do they know about my topic? What kinds of considerations do I need to take into account in terms of the language I am using, or the terminology, or the theory (and so on)?
  • Purpose: Why am I writing this paper/article/thesis/report etc? What am I trying to achieve with this piece of writing? What are my main aims and claims?
  • Context: Is this piece of writing for a tutor? For a lecturer? For an editor? Is the context local (my class, my department, my university) or wider (national or international, general or specific)?

And, crucially:

  • Evaluation: How will my writing be assessed? What are the guidelines/criteria to which I am writing, and that I need to consider as I create this piece of work? What would the possible consequences be if I don’t write to the guidelines or criteria?

Considering the APC&E is something I think all writers, especially novice writers, should get into the habit of doing, as it can mitigate against making missteps and errors. For example, assuming too much (or too little) knowledge on the part of the reader, and writing too abstractly, or perhaps too pedantically. Or, being unable to communicate the purpose of your writing, and so confusing your reader with a poorly structured, meandering argument. Rather than just sitting down to write, to just get it done, students need to be encouraged (and initially guided) in considering the APC&E for each piece of writing. If this becomes a healthy writing habit, students can grow into more thoughtful and thorough writers, and they can begin to think about their writing not just from their own (narrow) perspective as its author, but from the potentially wider perspective of its readers, and what they could take from the writing in terms of knowledge, or provocation for new thinking.

Working with this notion of writing from the view of the reader needs to be encouraged through an adaptable tool like the APC&E because it doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t necessarily commonsense. Most students have never been asked to think about these aspects of academic writing before they come to university, and if these habits don’t begin at undergraduate level, they are unlikely to become part of how students think through and create their written work as they progress through their studies. As an editor of two journals, and a peer reviewer, it is clear that not all authors do consider their readers when they write, and this is often clear in the kinds of feedback the articles receive from peer reviewers and editors.

My lack of consideration, or perhaps mistaken assumptions about, my readers was made clear to me in comments I received from three peer reviewers on the paper I am currently revising. Although they thought the paper was well-written, and considers an important topic, they essentially seemed to miss my overall purpose, and asked for revisions that indicated that too much of what I wanted to convey in the paper had not made it across the bridge between me as the author and them as the readers. I had not clarified my purpose, and further comments about revisions to the methodology and conceptual framework indicated to me that I had perhaps not fully or accurately considered the journal’s readership. Hence the conversation with my friend, stemming from me asking advice on how to address these comments in my revisions, and his advice to come at my writing as these three readers did, asking (and addressing) more critical questions about my assumptions regarding the audience and context, and my understanding of my purpose in writing the article.

This has not been easy to do. I really have no idea who will download and read my article; following Teresa Lillis (2001), I almost have to invent my readers in my head, and write to imagined rather than real people, which is challenging, and I am a fairly experienced writer, now. For undergraduate students, inventing their lecturers and tutors and trying to anticipate their feedback and reception of the writing is even more challenging, and often feels impossible. Thus, this tool needs to be adapted for writers working at different levels, and for different tasks: a first year student writing to a tutor will need to consider a different set of APC&E concerns than a PhD student writing to external examiners and a supervisor, for example. The PhD student may also need less, or different kinds of, guidance than the first year student new to writing at university, but guidance is key to working with the tool, and making this thinking process into a writing habit.

This is where tutoring and peer guidance comes in, and where a writing tutor or writing respondent can help: by being a critical friend and reader. Writing tutors within spaces like writing or learning centres can be students’ critical readers, and can help students to decipher ‘rubrics’ or writing guidelines, giving them a clearer sense of what their readers will be looking for, and what they can do to anticipate their readers’ reception of their writing. A tutor can’t tell a student what feedback they will get – feedback is not a uniform thing by any means – but they can work through the students’ APC&E, and create a space for reflection, thoughtfulness and a renewed, reader-centred approach to the piece of writing being worked on. All writers write for readers; thinking more carefully about who we are writing to, why and how, can help us as writers create a stronger bridge to our readers, ensuring clearer (and hopefully more accurate) reception of and engagement with the ideas and knowledge we are creating and sharing.

Thinking about the questions we ask students in writing tutorials

As peer writing tutors, we make use of different questioning techniques during tutorials to generate interesting discussions and assist students who come to us at different stages of the writing process to improve their writing. These techniques often vary depending on the student who needs help and the task being examined.  Although we always ask questions, we are seldom conscious of why we ask different types of questions and how useful these questions are in attaining the outcomes of a set tutorial. In this post, we will reflect on the extent to which our questioning techniques have evolved so far this year, or since we started tutoring at the Writing Centre in an attempt to understand the kinds of questions we ask and why as well as how we ask them. Our interest in the approaches to questioning in the context of writing tutoring was sparked by discussions following observations that were conducted as part of a mentorship programme that is ongoing at the UWC Writing Centre.

In terms of starting a discussion with students, we make use of introductory questions to build rapport, glean information on students’ socio-cultural and linguistic background, ease tension, understand and also manage students’ expectations. These types of questions are important in opening up space for conversation and learning to take place. When we meet students for the first time, in order to make them feel comfortable, we ask questions that help us ‘break the ice’ and ‘kickstart’ the tutoring process for both student and tutor. Students respond to us better when we indicate to them that we are interested in their wellbeing as writers and not just in their writing. The focus of such questions is more on getting to know the student as a writer. This gives us an opportunity to understand the emotions that students experience when faced with academic writing tasks. Beard, Clegg & Smith (2005: 235) concur by highlighting the importance of understanding ‘…the affective dimension in pedagogic encounters and the life world of students, and that it is possible to do so without a collapse into therapeutic discourses’. Writing tutorials provide a unique space for students to talk about how they feel about what they are reading and writing about and we encourage them to do that by asking the right questions. These introductory questions also help us to understand student’s own purpose for visiting the Writing Centre and to find out the help that students need in order to improve their writing. For instance, these sorts of questions help tutors distinguish between initial and follow-up tutorials, as well as students who come to us on their own volition and those that are compelled by lecturers and/or tutors to do so. Such information is very useful in informing the strategies that we use to help students understand the process approach to writing which informs our practice.

Introductory questions are usually followed by task and assignment related questions. These include questions that are intended to probe students’ knowledge about academic writing within a specific discourse, as well as their knowledge of the subject matter or content of a specific topic. More open questions are asked to get general information about a topic. Open questions here refer to questions that perform the dual function of encouraging students to talk generally about their writing in order to provide information to the tutor, while also leading the discussion in a specific direction as the tutor can identify gaps or areas for further discussion based on the information provided. Juxtaposing discussions about the task provided and what a student has written in a draft offers a way forward by giving us a sense as to where students need to make revisions. One way in which this can be done is by starting with smaller questions to scaffold into task analysis, always keeping in mind where we want the student to end up in terms of understanding the task at hand. Examples of these would include why, what and how questions. We more often use why and how questions rather than what questions,because these why and how questions shift the discussion from the tutor to the student,  increase the level of engagement between the student and the tutor, and help the tutor to guide the student towards productive answers. Therefore, we ask questions that are carefully crafted to encourage reflection and ultimately to push students’ thinking forward in a process of engaging with and improving their writing. An emphasis on process here indicates we perceive the students who come to us as being on a journey and we help make explicit to them the ways to get to where they need to go through questioning.

For tutors working at the UWC Writing Centre, questioning techniques are negotiated based on the draft received and the student or group of students who sit(s) in front of us during a tutorial. We tend to lean on our intuition instead of having pre-planned questions. However, our intuition is guided by theoretical and practical knowledge of the academic writing process and academic literacies. Therefore, as our conceptual understanding of academic writing has shifted and our confidence has grown, we tend to ask more questions and do less telling during writing tutorials. This approach provides more space for student-centred and learning-centred writing tutorials. What do you think about our approaches to questioning during writing tutorials? What can you relate to and what strategies do you use that are different? We would love to hear from you.

**This post was authored by Thecla Mulu and Lovertte Esambe (peer writing tutors)**

Reference

Beard, C., Clegg, S., and Smith, K. 2005. Acknowledging the affective in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 235–252