Make Your Reader Interesting

I can’t find the passage at the moment, but I vaguely recall Nabokov saying that his job as a writer was to make his readers more interesting. It seems like something he might say in an interview or foreword or in his lectures on literature. In any case, the idea is useful to academic writers, who are likely to think their job is to be interesting. The truth is that many readers read in order to become more interesting themselves, and your academic readers are, presumably, already professionally interested in your work. So, don’t bother with getting them interested in you; rather, make them interesting to you. That gives you a much better handle on the problem of writing.

I was able to demonstrate this to my students last week using a simple exercise that I will be talking more about in my next post. They had recently submitted an essay and we were now workshopping it in class. We looked briefly at the introduction and conclusion, then at the body paragraphs as a line of argument, and then at one of them in isolation. I had them identify their key sentence, generate some variations, commit themselves to one of them, and then edit the paragraph around the new key sentence. After a break, I had them find a partner and exchange paragraphs so that they could do a three-minute version of the standard nine-minute “unfiltered feedback” exercise. The writer was to sit in detached silence and listen to the reader read the writer’s paragraph back to them. The reader was then to “guess” at how the writer had answered the essay question.

I’m simplifying somewhat instead of explaining the students’ full predicament to you. The point is that, in this exercise the reader and writer are peers — comrades in a common struggle. They had been given the same essay prompt, and the same case material, and they had been attending the same classes about the same readings for a few weeks by now. They had now spent about nine minutes reworking a single paragraph from their essays and had given a fellow student three minutes to react to it, including reading it out loud. All of this should of course have given them a great deal of information to about their own writing. The experience, I want to say, should have interested them.

Of course, not all the students were equally thrilled with the exercise. They didn’t all enjoy hearing their own words read back to them, and found it hard to sit silently by while their classmate tried to think of something interesting to say about them. Those three minutes were so intolerable to some of them that they simply began talking to their reader, discussing the text, offering excuses for its flaws, and perhaps even defending it. (I can’t be sure exactly what these conversations involved, of course; but they were not sitting in the silence I had prescribed.) Though I had told them to maintain a “poker face” so as not to reveal to the reader how they felt about the reading, looking around the room I saw much nodding and smiling and even nervous laughter. My students are kind and empathetic people. They helped each other get through it.

I reminded them that those three minutes went as well as the writer deserved. The reader’s job was just to read the writer’s words for about a minute and then react spontaneously, honestly. The writer, who is always writing for a peer, had a good sense of what the reader (a fellow student in the same class) was capable of appreciating. Indeed, the whole point of a paragraph, I had told them long ago, is to occasion and resolve a difficulty in the mind of the reader. In those three minutes, the writer should be witnessing the reader struggling to believe, understand, or agree with the reader and ultimately “getting” it. (In real life, the reader has only one minute to do this, albeit in private.) If the experience of having someone read your writing is unpleasant or uninteresting to you, that is simply on you. Next time, give them better words to read. Make your reader interesting to you, at least for the few minutes that they’re reading you.

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