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we probably should be writing

  • Writer's pictureAmy McKernan

Unselfish words

Selfishness definitely has its place – we all need to be good at putting ourselves first when we need to – but the best writing almost always has something very unselfish about it. Sure, this is just my opinion, but the writing I enjoy is rarely self-indulgent, and I’m talking about everything from great literature through to random people’s Instagram captions.

When you’re writing for an audience – that is, most of the time when you write – the person you should be thinking most about is your reader. It’s very easy to get so tangled up in yourself that you forget that the person you’re writing to is also the person you’re writing for.

That probably sounds a little confusing. You see, when I focus on myself as I write, my thoughts are about showing myself in the best possible light. Sure, that’s important, but if that was all I wanted to do I could just type ‘I AM AMAZING BECAUSE I UNDERSTAND X.’ If I’m thinking about you as I write though, my focus shifts to wondering how I can best help you to understand X. Consider the following introductory paragraph:

Effective teaching often draws on constructivist pedagogies to ensure learners are engaged and extending into their zone of proximal development. I recommend teachers consider employing constructivist strategies for learning with disengaged students.

So it seems like I know what I’m talking about, but do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Even if you know some of this jargon – constructivism, zone of proximal development – I’m not really giving you anything you can use here. I’m really only saying, ‘hey look, I know what these big words mean, and you should know what they mean too.’ If you don’t have prior knowledge of constructivism (and, in this case, the psychic powers to know exactly how I’m thinking about these terms), you’re probably confused, and you might also be feeling a bit inferior. If the writing assumes you know what I’m talking about and you don’t, then my writing is telling you you’re not up to scratch. That’s a terrible thing for my writing to do. That immediately puts you on the defensive as a reader, which really isn’t where we want our readers to be, whether they’re assessing our work or not.

If I switch to thinking about who might be reading my work – say it’s an article for a teachers’ magazine – I might reflect on the fact that not everyone will have a detailed understanding of every educational theory out there. Some will, but some won’t. I might also consider the fact that teachers need things they can actually use in the classroom. So my writing needs to accommodate some of this diversity of prior knowledge and emphasise practical applications for what I’m talking about, to whatever extent I can within the word limit. So I might instead write something like:

Constructivist pedagogies ask learners to play an active role in developing their own understanding of concepts – the teacher is a facilitator supporting students to move themselves closer to a learning goal. Teachers can employ activities where students discuss and find solutions to problems in small groups as a constructivist strategy, for example, rather than simply standing up the front and providing all the answers. Constructivist learning is targeted at the level of skill or understanding each student is ready to engage with, known as their zones of proximal development.

The second version here sounds a lot less like I’m just a person with a very inflated ego parading what I know about learning theory. Instead, it sounds more like I see this as something that could be helpful to you, so I’m trying to communicate in a way that helps you understand a) what I’m describing; and b) how you can use this knowledge.

This is important in all kinds of writing-to-educate, but which I mean anything where you’re trying to communicate how something does or could work or some aspect of knowledge or skill that people need to know. It can be an unusual way to think about writing in academic contexts when so much of our success in that space seems to depend on us showing that we know things. That still matters—you can’t communicate it well if you don’t understand it!—but your writing will be more successful if you reflect carefully about the needs and perceptions of your audience.

Image: Paula Rosenstengel, Drawing of a desk and chair, State Library of Queensland

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