Deschooling Your Writing: How to Write for Real People (Not Teachers)

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I've always enjoyed writing. It is one of the few activities through which I can fairly regularly achieve a state of flow and really focus my efforts into an act of creation. I've been pretty good at it, too -- at least that's what the schools told me.

I recently revisited some of my writing from just earlier last year and found myself leaving the paper covered in corrections, rephrasings, and general confused marginalia.

"Why this phrasing?" "This is so loose. It barely means anything." "Cut these words and reorganize." "This paragraph should have come before the prior."

I closed the section with a general feeling of disappointment. Originally reading it left me excited, "this is one of the best things I've ever written!" Now, it felt like one of the worst. My friend Michael Malice -- author of Dear Reader -- encourages writers to revisit their work only after stepping away from it for some time, but this felt like I was reading somebody else's writing.

It was formulaic, and what wasn't formulaic was overly-formal. Some words were thrown in because they would have made sense in a formal essay (but would probably leave a lay reader annoyed or exerting too much energy). In short, it felt like it was written for a professor.

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.

Ray Bradbury

Schooled Writing: Write Like Your Audience!

In school, you are taught to emulate certain styles and to follow specific formulae for writing. At Penn, all freshmen were required to take a dreaded "Writing Seminar" class that was pretty much a course in formulaic writing. Students who didn't really know how to write a structured argument or flow a set of claims together probably got some benefit from the class -- how if C, then A + B -- but others found most of their time wasted writing out charts that explained "This sentence SAYS X, it MEANS Y," or "First comes this kind of claim, next comes this kind of claim."

And for a class that was primarily taught by graduate students and adjuncts, this worked out for them. They are grading dozens of essays making arguments that have to do with everything from Just War Theory to Toni Morrison's character development in her second novel. They want something formulaic to work efficiently.

Some of the most successful professors I know tell their stories of using reverse-deduction to get where they are today. Meaning they looked at the other successful profs in their field, saw what they did, and looked to emulate them.

Hopefully this at least results in dry, clear writing. Oftentimes it results in dry, formulaic, loose writing. Simply saying, "write for your audience" isn't enough when it comes to deschooling your writing. Those of us who flourished with academic writing were writing for our audiences. We were either writing to emulate them or to impress them (or confuse them, in the case of the postmodernists).

SCHOOLED WRITING: You Know Your Audience

When we write for teachers, instructors, professors, and researchers, we know who our audience is going to be. It's going to be people specifically trained to read this writing in a specific way with specific goals. They will likely write like us (doubt me? Try succeeding as an academic with a starkly different writing style than your peers) and be interested in the same general topics as we are.

We know our audience. It's pretty clearly defined from the get-go.

In non-academic writing, this isn't the case.

You can try to define your audience by marketing your writing, book, or blog a certain way. You can try defining it further by explicitly stating at the beginning for whom you are writing. You can try to write in certain areas to garner only the attention of people interested in those areas.

But if you put your writing out there, you can never have a perfectly-defined audience.

Deschooled Writing: Anticipate Your audience, Write for them

When we deschool our writing, we need to understand that our audience won't be perfectly-defined like it was in school. We need to use our best guesswork to anticipate who our readers will be.

What are their backgrounds?

What is their education like?

How much do they bring to the table already?

Then we can start writing for them.

Writing for an audience doesn't simply mean providing information in clear manner. This is necessary for deschooled writing, but it isn't enough. "Writing for an audience" is both a dry statement about what these people are looking to learn, but a broader artistic statement about what they are looking to engage with.

Writing for an audience means communicating your point to them in a clear and entertaining way.

It doesn't matter if you know the answer to the meaning to life if you bore your audience away from while trying to explain it.

The core of deschooling your writing, then, is this:

Deschooled writing is written for an unknown audience to serve what you anticipate their needs are.

The writer is much like the entrepreneur in this sense. An entrepreneur sees a problem, devises a solution he anticipates people will enjoy, anticipates a target market, and puts the product out there in a way that is palatable to this target market.

Sometimes he doesn't sufficiently understand the market or the problem and decides to iterate.

Sometimes the writer has to go back and redraft his work.

DESCHOOLing Your Writing: Where to Start?

First, just start reading non-academic work.

Read blogs, books written for lay-audiences, novels, and shorter works on areas that interest you.

Keep a good mix so that you don't fall too much into any one style. Pop-business books and self-help books are known for their formulaic writing. The authors fall into the same traps as academics and students -- they mimic each other and can pretty much anticipate exactly who will buy the book. Reading different genres and styles keeps you on your feet and helps you glean the best of all worlds.

Second, start actively writing.

Don't write for an instructor or a specific person.

Just write.

You'll notice your writing change over time as you begin to adapt the practices of popular authors to your active writing. You'll develop your own style. Why try to emulate the style of long-dead writers or of professors bottled up in academic journals directly? Why not get the best of all?

This doesn't mean to start writing useless crap. It doesn't mean to eschew grammar and good style. It means to write like you are writing for a consumer of content. Keep a copy of Elements of Style around. But don't write formulaically.

Write as if you are looking to help solve somebody's problem -- because you are. You are writing to solve boredom. You are writing to add value to somebody's life. Nobody owes your post a read or a click.

Make their time worthwhile.