What Do You Want Your Essay to Do to Your Reader--and Why?
by Tina Blue
January 12, 2003
Last semester Diane, a girl in my English 101 class, wrote an unsuccessful first draft of an essay about an article she had read that had moved her deeply. The article told the story of a North Korean woman who had escaped to China, but who was discovered and returned to North Korea. There she was sent to a women's prison camp, where the conditions were shockingly similar to those in the Nazi death camps during World War II.
When the authorities discovered that she had been a midwife, they assigned her to deliver babies for the pregnant prisoners. After she delivered her first infant, she began to clean him off. The guard struck her and ordered her to just dump the newborn into a box on one side of the room. Then he took the baby from her and dropped it into the box, where she saw, to her horror, there were other newborn babies, most dead, a few almost dead, but still barely moving.
Diane's essay was heartfelt, but entirely without point or direction. Basically, she told the woman's story and then said how horrifying it was and how we in America should appreciate our freedoms and try to do something to help the people in North Korea.
Besides being vague and general, such a response was full of what I call "Miss America platitudes," those airy nothings that Miss America contestants produce when asked what they would like to change in the world. They always say things like, "I want to make the world a place where all children are wanted and loved, and where there is no more war and suffering." (And while they're at it, maybe they can find a cure for AIDS and cancer, persuade politicians to be honest, and do away with greed and hypocrisy. A manned mission to Mars would be nice, too.)
There is just no point in saying such things.
As a first step in her revision I sent her to our campus writing lab (called Writers' Roost here at KU). But the peer tutor at Writers' Roost looked at her essay and just gave up, saying, "I don't know what to tell you."
Diane came up before class the day after her disappointing visit to Writers' Roost and asked if she could change her topic. The peer tutor's response to her first draft had convinced her that there was nothing to be said in response to the article she had originally chosen to write about.
Now, I am a big fan of Runnism--you know, Pogo's philosophy that there is no problem so big it can't be run away from. Even in writing I often think that changing topics is the best way to deal with a recalcitrant project. But as a composition teacher, I have to help my students find ways to wrestle with whatever topic they have to wrestle with. After all, in many cases they just won't have the option of switching topics.
So I began to pepper Diane with questions. I pointed at a girl in her class who had gotten to the classroom several minutes early.
"There's Jennifer over there, Diane. She's never read that article. Do you think she should read it?"
Of course Diane thought she should read it.
"Well, guess what, Diane. She isn't going to read it. She's got her own work to do, and she doesn't have time to read it, do you Jennifer?"
Jennifer is a nice girl. She told Diane she would read the article if Diane wanted her to. I am not as nice, so I said, "No you won't, Jennifer. Tell Diane you won't read the article."
"Okay," Jennifer said. "I won't read the article."
"Now, Diane, you and I are the only ones who have read the article, and we are the only ones who are going to read it. How do you feel about that?"
She didn't like that idea. She thought the article was important and that more people should read it, though she still couldn't quite articulate why they should read it.
So I asked her, "Let's say you just summarized the article for Jennifer, and you have told her everything you put in your essay about the North Korean woman's story. So what? What do you think she's supposed to do with that information? Should she just sit up nights and think, 'Oh, how terrible that such things happen to innocent people'? That doesn't seem very useful to me."
Diane pointed out that she had said in her essay we should try to do something to help those people, and also that we should appreciate our own freedoms more.
"What can we do to help them? Realistically, can you ask Jennifer, a college freshman, a sorority pledge, a student with a difficult schedule and a part-time job, to help the people suffering in North Korean prison camps? Is that what you think you need to use your essay for? Getting people like Jennifer to storm the North Korean prison camps and free brutalized political prisoners?"
Well, no, of course not. Diane wasn't expecting her readers to actually save North Korean prisoners, but maybe they could write to their congressmen. I didn't even have to snort at her. She immediately realized how silly that idea was.
"So look at Jennifer, Diane. Tell her the story."
Diane told Jennifer about the article. Jennifer was stunned. (Weren't you, when I summarized it earlier?)
Now, the part of Diane's essay where she summarized the article was well written. Diane actually is a good writer, when she knows what she is writing about and why. And she definitely wanted to tell this story. It had moved her, and she wanted other people to know about it and to be moved by it, too. When she saw Jennifer's reaction to the story, I asked Diane if she still wanted to abandon this topic. No, she didn't. Jennifer's shock was at least part of what she wanted to achieve in her audience. She wanted them to be aware that such things are going on in the world, and to feel the same horror she felt over such knowledge.
But then I asked her, "Did reading this story do anything to you other than make you feel shocked and horrified?"
In response to my question she began to talk about how just a week before reading the article she had pitched a hissy fit at her mother for refusing her request (demand might be a more appropriate word) for a set of pearls. Diane comes from a very affluent family. She knows her parents can afford to give her pearls, and she was very angry when they told her no.
After reading the story about the North Korean prison camps (and another I had given her from my own collection of magazine articles, about another woman who had been a political prisoner in a North Korean prison camp), she had kept coming back to the way she had behaved over the pearls. She began to think not only about how much more free and safe we are over here, but how much we have, when North Koreans are eating boiled grass and starving to death by the millions.
She felt ashamed of her own materialism, her lack of gratitude, and the fact that she had been so comfortably oblivious to the suffering of people like the woman in the article. Diane is a devout Catholic, and this story suddenly made her realize that regardless of what she professed to
believe, her behavior and attitudes were not in keeping with her religious ideals.
The article had made her examine herself, and she felt that she had come out of her time of introspection with a deeper moral sense and a commitment to behave in a less shallow, selfish, materialistic way. She wanted others to hear this story and to have the same sort of response she had, and that is a large part of what she wanted her essay to accomplish.
But there was something else. Diane understands that the habits of a lifetime are hard to break, and she worried that in no time at all she would forget how the story made her feel, and she would revert to her old ways. She did not want that, and she wanted her readers also to be aware of that danger and to guard against it, as she herself meant to guard against it.
So this was the advice I gave her:
Keep your summary of the article. That part of the essay is already quite effective. Then take your reader with you as you explore what this story made you realize about yourself and about the ways in which you are typical of our society. Show them what realizations you came to and how. Tell them actual anecdotes, like the story about the pearls, to make your self-examination seem vivid and significant to them.
But don't stop there. Take them one step further, to the point about how you fear you will soon forget this "lesson," even though you don't want to. Not only will writing about that help you to hold on to your own resolve, it will serve as a warning to your readers. Many will be moved to the same sort of introspection and will arrive at the same sort of conclusion. And just like you, they will soon backslide. But your final warning, couched in terms of your own fear of backsliding, might help them to keep this story and its impact closer to the forefront of their minds.
Now that she had in mind what she wanted her essay to do to her audience, Diane found it much easier to write. She didn't have to run away from a topic that she really wanted to write about. She had always had her topic, she just had not yet defined her audience and her purpose, and even defining her purpose was a primarily a matter of deciding what she wanted her essay to do to her reader--and why.