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Three Main Questions to Be Able to Answer in Your Paper Discovered By: Laura Winton

Greetings and welcome back from break!  This semester I have decided to write a few columns in my capacity as a Writing Center Consultant.  I have taught English for a number of years through Scott Community College, Brown Mackie College and through Continuing Education at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.  I have also worked in the writing center at Illinois State University, as a mentor-tutor to athletes at the University of Minnesota, as an online writing tutor through Smarthinking, and am now in my last semester as a graduate writing consultant here at Western.  So, as the Farmer’s Insurance commercial says, I’ve learned a thing or two . . . .

Some of what I will be posting here come from handouts that I have given my students and from lesson plans that I have developed.  I hope they will help you in your journey of writing.  No matter what field you are in, the higher up you go in that field, the more writing you will do.  Experts say that, despite the fact that our society is described as post-writing or even post-literate, the fact is that people do more writing now that ever!  I will talk about that in a future column (if I remember to!).

For today, I want to talk to you about a simple, yet complex way of checking on your papers and whether or not you have written enough and written in the right way.  I call this my “three questions to satisfy a five year-old” test.  Make sure that you can answer these three questions of every point you make and you are golden.

The first question is “So?”  Have you ever told a five year-old about something you once did or tried to explain the reason behind what they should or should not do?  If they are not immediately interested, they will shrug their shoulders and say “So?”  You can use this apathy to your advantage when writing a paper.  When a five year-old says “So?” what they are really saying is “what’s the point; why are you telling me this; what do I care?”  In other words, why should I stop eating dirt or whatever other exploration I am involved in to listen to you?  What are the stakes of what you are writing?  Make sure that your reader knows why they need to have this information, because they, too, are very busy human beings and have other things to do that to read what you have written.  Make them see how important or interesting your work is.

The second question gets to details.  “Like what?”  If you have ever taken a child somewhere and told them a little white lie, like “there will be plenty of fun things to do when we get there,” the five year-old will ask you skeptically, “like what?”  I write this all the time on student papers.  When you make a claim about something, anything, I am going to ask you “like what?”  What kind of example can you give me, what are the details, and what are you trying to tell me?

The third question comes right from my experience as a nanny lo those many years ago.  I nannied for a kid who went through a phase where everything you would say, he would respond “How do you know?”  I would simply tell him “I know because I’m in college and that’s what they teach me.”  That would be fine with him.  I had given him my credentials and they had met the test.  He asked his mother one day “How do you know” and out of frustration, she said “I don’t know, Johnny [not his real name]. I just don’t know.”  Johnny looked at her and said, “Laura knows.”  We had a chuckle about that, but there was an underlying tension in the mother’s voice when she told me that story.  The point is, every person you tell something to and present it as fact wants to know how you know.  What evidence have you gleaned this information from?  Did you see it yourself, or was this the conclusion of someone that you had heard it from?  This is your research and your citations.  If you can present it well enough that your instructor, your peers, and your readers will accept your conclusion, you have probably done a pretty good job (especially with your instructor).

Those are your three questions to answer every single time you write:  so what, like what, and how do you know?  If you can answer those three questions, you’re golden!

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