writing

How to Write Realistic Legal Objections

Of all the law-related things I see writers get wrong – in books, in TV and in films – objections are the worst.

On television, objections are raised to heighten tension. They’re most often raised when someone mentions a piece of evidence the objector does not like. And they’re usually resolved telepathically, with a series of meaningful glances between the attorneys and the judge.

To anyone who has ever practiced litigation, fictional objections are maddening.

I don’t think writers can be entirely blamed for this state of affairs. After all, the vast majority of people only see objections play out in books or in courtroom dramas. Even if they’ve had the misfortune of being present during a courtroom trial, they may not have understood why certain objections were being raised – especially if they were raised via motion or resolved in a sidebar.

If you want to write a courtroom scene that doesn’t make lawyers tear their hair out, here’s what you need to know about objections.

Objections are for improper evidence, not “evidence that’s bad for my side.”

In fiction, objections tend to get raised whenever a piece of evidence comes up that is somehow bad for the person/side doing the objecting. As a result, many people who represent themselves will yell “Objection!” whenever something comes up that they don’t want the court to hear.

In legal practice, however, objections aren’t for “evidence I don’t like.” They’re for evidence that violates the rules of evidence in some way – evidence that is not admissible at trial.

US federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Evidence. State courts follow their state rules of evidence. Some state rules of evidence are very similar to the Federal Rules of Evidence. Some are very different. Most are similar in some ways but different in other ways.

If this all sounds very confusing, that’s because it is. The rules of evidence are Byzantine. Law schools teach “Evidence” as a semester course all on its own; some law schools teach Evidence as a two-semester course. (Having taken the single semester, I wish I’d taken the two-semester version.)

Fortunately, as a writer, you don’t have to spend an entire semester on the rules of evidence in order to understand how to write a scene in which a lawyer or pro se litigant objects. Some objections are far more common than others – I’ll get into those below.

Most objections are handled before the trial date.

Jurors do not like objections. They interrupt the flow of the trial. They waste time, and they tend to make whoever is doing the objecting look like a jerk – or worse, like they have something to hide.

As a result, most attorneys do whatever they can to resolve objections before they can come up at trial.

There are several ways to do this. One is by holding pre-trial hearings on matters that are likely to make a trial drag or to raise significant objections. Expert witnesses, for example, are often qualified in a pre-trial hearing, just so the jury doesn’t have to sit through the qualification process (on which the jury gets no say anyway, because “Is this person qualified to serve as an expert witness in this case?” is a legal question).

Parties to a lawsuit can also use motions to raise and resolve evidentiary issues before the actual trial. One of the most common of these is a motion in limine (pronounced “LIH-min-ee” or “LIH-min-ay” depending on who taught you to pronounce it).

A motion in limine is a motion made before the trial begins, seeking to keep out certain evidence. If the court grants the motion, the evidence at issue can’t be brought up – and if it is, you may hear an objection from opposing counsel.

Another tool lawyers use to keep from interrupting a trial every five seconds with “Objection!” is the “continuing objection.” In short, the lawyer tells the court that they object to every question on a particular topic, or every piece of evidence on a particular topic, and all for the same reason.

Continuing objections can be very useful if, say, your motion in limine has been denied, but failing to object to the evidence could have a serious negative effect on your case or your client’s Constitutional rights.

For example, say your client’s house was searched without a warrant or without any exception to the warrant requirement applying – a situation that would make any evidence found in that search inadmissible in court. Nonetheless, the judge decides to let all that evidence in for some reason. By lodging a continuing objection, you preserve your client’s right to argue on appeal that the trial judge messed up, but you don’t keep the jury there for hours longer than necessary – or worse, make them start to hate your client – because you’re yelling “objection” every time someone mentions what was found in your client’s house.

Objections are not resolved by telepathy, but they can be resolved by sidebars.

In fiction, attorneys and judges often resolve objections by glancing meaningfully at one another, followed by the judge saying “sustained” or “overruled.”

In legal practice, none of us are telepathic (though it would have made more than one of my court cases much easier). Instead, the process of resolving an objection after it has been raised goes something like this:

Attorney 1: [Speaking]

Attorney 2: Objection, Your Honor, [basis for the objection].

Attorney 1: [Explains why that basis for the objection doesn’t apply or why the evidence should be allowed even if it does apply]

Judge: [Decides to allow the evidence and replies “Overruled,” or not to allow it and replies “Sustained.”]

There are, I think, two main reasons that most writers don’t portray objections in this way. First, it’s not particularly dramatic. It’s certainly not as dramatic as a well-acted Meaningful Glance.

Second, even people who have attended court trials don’t actually hear this back-and-forth. That’s because a lot of objections made during a trial are resolved in what’s called a sidebar.

You’ll know a sidebar is happening if you see the following:

Attorney 1: [Speaking]

Attorney 2: Objection, Your Honor, [may or may not state the basis]

Judge: Counsel, please approach the bench.

[The attorneys and judge hold a whispered conversation, usually with the judge’s microphone turned off.]

Judge: [Announces their decision and the trial continues.]

The purpose of a sidebar is to resolve objections without revealing the entire process of resolving those objections to the jury. The idea is that if the witness doesn’t hear the back and forth, it can’t affect their testimony, and if the jury doesn’t hear the back and forth, it can’t affect their decision in the case.

I’m not aware of any studies indicating that use of sidebars in fact results in better witness testimony or juror results (nor am I entirely sure how one would even design such a study), but that’s the theory.

The most commonly-used objection isn’t “hearsay,” but “relevance.”

Ask most novel and screen audiences to name a legal objection, and they’ll name “hearsay.”

Hearsay is the most complex single area of evidence law, but it’s not the most common courtroom objection. That title goes to “relevance.”

Federal Rule of Evidence 403 (and similar state rules) prohibits evidence whose “probative value” (i.e. usefulness in helping to resolve the case) is lower than that evidence’s likelihood of prejudicing the hearer, time-wasting-ness, and so on. This makes FRE 403 the all-purpose evidence rule: If something can’t be objected to on any other terms, it can probably still be objected to for its relevance.

In practice, objections as to relevance don’t get sustained as often as you’d think. Judges assume that most evidence is going to weigh against one party or the other. If everyone agreed that all the evidence was perfect as it is, the case would have been settled before trial. To win a relevance objection, the lawyer/party has to prove that the evidence’s prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value.

The prejudicial effect of your fingerprints in the victim’s blood on the murder weapon? High. The usefulness of that fact in helping the jury decide whether you were the one who did the killing? Also high.

By contrast: The prejudicial effect of news that you sold meth to children from your dorm room in 1998? High. The usefulness of that fact in helping the jury decide whether you cheated on your taxes in 2019? Low.

“Relevance” is perhaps the closest objection to “I don’t like this evidence,” but it’s not the same objection. If you have a character use it, be prepared to have them explain it.

Other common objections:

Asked and Answered

Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. If a lawyer asks a witness a question and the witness answers it, the lawyer doesn’t get to ask again just because they did not like the answer.

Argumentative

If the lawyer/party tries to make an argument disguised as a question,, or to badger the witness, the opposing party/counsel can object to the question as argumentative.

“Are you afraid of the defendant?” is not argumentative (generally); “Oh come on, how can you be afraid of someone who’s a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than you are?” is argumentative (generally).

Foundation

If there’s been no attempt to establish what a piece of evidence is or where it came from, that evidence may face an objection as to lack of foundation.

For example, a witness who testifies “I answered the phone and heard Patty’s voice” may hear an objection if there’s been no attempt prior to this answer to explain who Patty is or how the witness would recognize Patty’s voice on a phone. (This is why witnesses often seem tedious at first; the early questions are often about laying a foundation.)

The phrase “Objection, assumes facts not in evidence” is an objection to foundation.

Leading Question

A question that contains its own answer, usually phrased as a “yes” or “no.” For example, “You saw him leave the bar, didn’t you? He had the gun in his hand at that time, correct?”

Note that leading questions are usually disallowed only on direct examination (i.e. when a lawyer is questioning a witness they put on the stand themselves). They’re allowed on cross-examination.

To complicate matters further, leading questions are also allowed on direct examination, if the lawyer has permission to treat the witness as “hostile.” It’s relatively rare to ask for or get permission to treat your own witness as hostile, but it does happen. For example, a prosecutor in a domestic violence case whose only witness is a victim who doesn’t want to press charges may ask for and receive permission to treat that witness as hostile, and thus to ask leading questions like “The defendant hit you in the face, right?”

Opinion

As a rule, most witnesses cannot offer opinions on the stand. They can only offer facts: Things they saw, heard, smelled and so on. But be aware of the two main exceptions: (1) expert witnesses may offer opinions based on their expertise, and (2) fact witnesses can offer opinions if the issue is whether they do in fact hold a particular opinion.

That last one can get tricky, so here’s an example. “Are you afraid of the defendant?”, above, is not an opinion question. Rather, it seeks to establish the particular fact of the witness’s feelings toward the defendant, which may in turn have spurred particular actions on the witness’s part. “Should we be afraid of the defendant?” seeks an opinion.

Speculation

“Speculation” is an objection that can cut two ways. First, it can be used against questions that ask the witness to speculate: “How many piano tuners do you think are in the city of Chicago?” Second, it can be used to address speculative answers: “If I had to guess, I’d say about 400.”

Often, a question or answer is speculative if it asks for a guess. If the information would not be a guess with the proper foundation, the proper objection is to foundation. For instance, “I’d say there are about 400 piano tuners in Chicago” is not speculation if the witness is an expert in the demographics of Chicago professionals and a foundation has been laid to demonstrate such.

Vague

A question that’s not specific enough for a clear, direct answer can be objected to as vague. “Can you tell the court where you went earlier?” is vague (when was “earlier” – this morning, last week, 1976?). “Can you tell the court where you went between eight am and noon today?” is specific enough for a clear answer.

“Vague” is also a good catch-all if the question is obviously some kind of trap, but you’re not certain what kind of trap it is. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is one example: As a yes or no question, the only proper answers are “yes” or “no” – as in “yes, I’ve stopped beating my wife” or “no, I have not stopped beating my wife.” There’s no way to answer “I never beat my wife in the first place.” (This particular question can also be objected to as argumentative or compound.)

Speaking of “hearsay”: It’s harder to use correctly than you’d think.

“Hearsay” is one of the most popular legal objections in fiction, but the vast majority of readers don’t actually understand what it means. That’s okay. A lot of lawyers don’t properly understand hearsay objections either.

There are two reasons hearsay is so hard to understand:

  1. Hearsay has a very specific definition that’s not entirely covered in the word itself, and
  2. There are several exceptions to the prohibition against hearsay, as well as a handful of “exclusions.”

First, the definition of “hearsay” is not merely “I heard someone say.” Rather, hearsay is 1. a statement 2. made out of court 3. mentioned in court in order to prove the truth of the statement’s contents.

In practice, few disputes over hearsay are actually about whether something is a “statement” (although there are some really interesting recent ones over whether things like a Facebook thumbs-up counts). Similarly, whether a statement was made out of court is not usually at issue.

Rather, the vast majority of fights over a hearsay objection is whether the statement is being presented to prove the truth of the statement’s contents.

Here’s an example:

Witness. …And that’s when I went to the bar.
Prosecutor. What did you do when you got inside the bar?
Witness. Well, I saw Casey sitting there. And I walked up to Casey and said “Hey, I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save.”

The vast majority of lawyers representing Robin at this point are going to object to this statement as hearsay. But is it hearsay?

If it’s being offered to prove that Robin did in fact run over Pat with a car, then yes, it’s hearsay. It’s an out of court statement being offered to prove the truth of what’s in the statement: “I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save.”

But: If it’s being offered to prove something else, then no, it’s not hearsay. Suppose the judge lets the prosecutor continue:

Prosecutor: Why did you tell Casey this?
Witness: Well, I wanted Casey to go beat the sh*t out of Robin. Because I hate Robin’s guts.

Suddenly, “I saw Robin run over Pat with a car last week down by the Try ‘n Save” isn’t hearsay, because it fails that essential third part of the test. It’s not being offered to prove that Robin ran over Pat; rather, it’s being offered to prove that this witness has a grudge against Robin.

(Note that “I hate Robin’s guts” won’t survive an objection as an opinion here, either. In this context, it’s a fact: The fact that the witness hates Robin is relevant to the witness’s behavior toward Casey.)

To make matters even more confusing, there are about 25 exceptions to the hearsay rule, most of which are listed in FRE 803 and 804. The thing that connects all these exceptions is the belief that, even though the information is hearsay, it is sufficiently reliable that the court’s not too worried that a witness is just making it up on the spot.

Common hearsay exceptions include:

  • Present sense impressions and excited utterances. A recording of the above witness yelling “Holy crap, Robin’s running over Pat in the Try ‘n Save parking lot!” over the sound of squealing tires and Pat’s screams would fall into both categories. It’d be considered reliable because it’s being made as the event happens. (Note that this recording would have to meet foundational requirements to be admitted.)
  • Business and medical records. Robin’s timecard from the day of Pat’s vehicular squishing could be admitted to prove Robin was at work, since it’s a record of the type Robin’s business routinely keeps. Similarly, medical records from Pat’s ER trip would probably fall in this area. (Foundational requirements apply here too. You can’t just make a timecard out of your phone bill and assume it’ll get admitted.)
  • Previous court judgments. If Robin was found liable for wrongful death in a civil case involving the Robin-Pat incident, that judgment could be admitted in a criminal case against Robin – and vice versa.

There are also a handful of exclusions. My personal favorite are statements by a party-opponent. In a criminal case against Robin, these would include the prosecutor introducing evidence like Robin posting to Facebook, “I ran over Pat and I’d do it again,” “I hate cleaning Pat guts out of my radiator” or “Karma’s a b***** and so is being run over by my car, Pat!”

This is why you never, ever post your criminal escapades to social media – they can’t be kept out by the hearsay rule.

Tl;dr

There are plenty of things I didn’t, and can’t, cover in this blog post. If you’re really interested in knowing what all the rules of evidence are, you can find copies of the Federal Rules of Evidence online and in just about any university library.

For writing purposes, keep the following things in mind:

  • There are always reasons an objection is made in court, and that reason is never just “This evidence makes me look bad.”
  • The vast majority of things that parties might object to are handled in advance and/or outside the hearing of the jury. During a trial, most objections arise from unexpected turns of phrase by witnesses; anything that could have been seen coming before the trial has usually already been settled.
  • Jurors hate objections, so most lawyers try to avoid them unless the damage to their case will be worse than the annoyance of the jury.
  • When in doubt as a writer, fall back on a relevance objection, not a hearsay one.

Note: This blog post is not legal advice; it is a general overview of trial objections meant to help fiction writers. If you need legal help, contact your local Legal Aid office or a lawyer who practices in you area.

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satire, fiction and humor, writing

How to Be an Aspiring Writer

There are I-don’t-know-how-many books, blogs and other resources for people who want to know how to become a writer. This blog even has a post or two on the subject.

What’s sorely missing, however, are any guides on how to become an aspiring writer.

Works on writing are for people who are already aspiring to become writers. They’re not much use for those who are aspiring to aspire to become writers. One has to walk before they can run, of course.

The demand for guides on “how to become an aspiring writer” is surprisingly high. I see two or three versions of that question cross my Quora feed in an average week. Yet these valiant souls, who aspire one day to aspire to write, get completely overlooked by an industry that’s, apparently, only interested in reaching those who have already begun the aspiration process.

So: If you’re dreaming of someday being the kind of person who dreams about writing a novel, a screenplay, a memoir or a collection of poems, here’s the guide for you.

Acquire the Necessary Aesthetic

Most of the energy cost of being an aspiring writer is spent on maintaining a “writer aesthetic.” This makes sense; after all, the most important part of being an aspiring writer is to look like one.

One’s aesthetic is about more than looks. It’s an entire lifestyle approach that communicates to the world, “I have Lofty Thoughts, which I might someday Write Down in the form of a Book.”

As a newcomer to the adventure of writer aspirations, do spend most of your time cultivating your personal aesthetic to live like you imagine a writer having deep thoughts about nature and the human condition would live.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Clothing. Dress the way you imagine a writer dressing when that writer is the kind of writer you want to be. If nothing comes to mind, opt for dark/muted colors, turtlenecks, and berets. Avoid jeans unless you have no choice or you’re going for a “working stiff by day, poetic genius by night” vibe.
  • Diet. To be an aspiring writer, it is of course absolutely essential to consume only the food, drink and substances that the writer in your imagination would consume. Be realistic: You can’t actually live on coffee, cigarettes and hard liquor, but you can certainly incorporate them into your public consumption and/or find convincing alternatives. Attention to consumables is essential to properly fuel the aspiring writer within.
  • Haunts. I’m going to guess that the writer in your imagination doesn’t do anything so mundane as work in an office or pick up the dry cleaning. You may still need to make money and buy groceries while you aspire to write your bestseller, but that doesn’t mean you need to be seen in those places any longer than necessary. Work on spending your free time in places you imagine writers would frequent, like coffee shops. Just remember that these places need to be public. After all, the point of being an aspiring writer is to be seen aspiring.
  • Interests. As an aspiring writer, your primary interest should be, of course, writing. But every writer needs something to write about. Cultivate an appropriately aspirational hobby, like collecting Victorian hair jewelry. If you’re short on funds, “observing the human condition” is a classic aspiring-writer hobby that costs nothing.

Need a shortcut to a full-on writer aesthetic? Look up “dark academia” on Pinterest. What you’ll see is pretty much just my life, but better, for the kids have made it an Aesthetic.

Read Book(s) on Writing

As the huge selection of books, blogs and articles on How to Write makes clear, there’s a huge market for writing advice. Who consumes this advice? Aspiring writers, of course!

To make the transition to a full-fledged aspiring writer, then, you’ll need to read at least one book on writing. It’s best to make this book a fairly recent classic that other people have actually heard of, and that has no unseemly words or phrases in its title, no matter how good the content it. (Sorry, Chuck Wendig.)

When in doubt, reach for a book like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Neither book will help you be a better writer unless you actually write, but that’s not your goal. Your goal is to be able to quote the book you choose as if it is the Scripture of your new religion: the Church of Aspiring to Write.

(You will meet members of rival churches. Be patient with them. Their benighted ignorance is not their fault. Lead by example, so that others may aspire to write as fervently as you do.)

Start a Piece (But Don’t Actually Work On It)

Finally, aspiring writers always have a piece in the works – but they don’t actually work on it. Or if they do, the work consists of anything except actually putting words on paper/screen.

Here’s the great secret of writing: Everything ever written got that way by someone putting down words, one after the other, until the piece was finished (or abandoned). But you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be an aspiring writer. And aspiring writers don’t write; they dream of having written.

To convince skeptical audiences, however, you’ll need to at least start a piece. Decide what you’re going to write, then create a title page. You don’t have to love the title. You don’t even have to have a title; you can call it “My Novel” or “My Screenplay.”

Write this down on a piece of paper, then put that piece of paper away somewhere and forget about it. Like a law degree, it’s only there so that you can inject it into conversations in order to score points: “I’m writing a screenplay.

You should, of course, strenuously avoid actually writing the screenplay. Go read another book on writing, or refresh Twitter, or Observe the Human Condition. Really, anything except putting words down on paper/screen.

Because if you start putting down words, you might become an actual writer – and nothing ruins a career as an aspiring writer faster than becoming a real one.


What’s your advice for becoming an aspiring writer? Leave a comment, share this post, or buy me a coffee.

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the creative process, writing

Why Is Writing Hard?

I write for a living. For several years, I taught writing for a living, as both a college professor and a developmental editor. And the question I hear more often than any other is “Why is writing hard?”

Why is writing hard? Why do people struggle with writing? Can writing be taught?

The question “why is writing hard?” presumes, first, that writing is hard. This assumption lurks in related questions as well.

It even appears in the question “Can writing be taught?” – a question I heard asked more often, and answered in the negative, in university writing departments than anywhere else. The assumption was that generally speaking, writing cannot be taught. Those of us who find writing easy were born this way. We have something the vast majority of people don’t – something that can be winnowed out and honed by other good writers, but that cannot be taught by them.

I think that’s nonsense.

At the same time, however, I’m often at a loss to explain how it is I learned to write well. My own experience with writing is innate and organic. I don’t know where or how I learned to do this; I just know I can.

So I started looking into the research.

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Thought With an Audience

Every time I asked this question in a freshman composition class, the consensus was the same: “To express yourself.” “To get your thoughts down on paper.” Each class also agreed, though less strongly, that “expressing yourself” was the easy part of writing.

But if the goal of writing is to “express yourself,” which is “easy,” then why is writing hard?

Expressing yourself in writing may be the beginning of the process, but it isn’t the end. In a 1979 article in College English, Linda Flower asserts that “expressing what you think” in writing fails to account for the public nature of writing. Our own thoughts tend to be full of shortcuts comprehensible only to us. We know what we mean, so there’s no need to define or explain key images, words or phrases.

When we transcribe those thoughts into writing, however, we’re placing them into a context that allows them to be accessed by other people. Other people, however, have no access to the contents of our brains except what we give them.

To write effectively, then, the writer must be able to take the perspective of the reader. By “stepping into the reader’s shoes,” the writer can determine which ideas need to be defined or explained for the written expression of their thoughts to make sense.

Failing to factor in the audience’s perspective “is the source of some of the most common and pervasive problems in academic and professional writing,” says Flower.

Why is writing hard? Writing isn’t merely thought; it’s thought with an audience.

Teaching Students to Fear Writing

The process of taking a student from “putting their thoughts on paper” to “creating a work that accounts for an audience” is, in essence, the process of teaching students how to write. That process, as taught, is a complex one.

In a 1979 article in Language Arts titled “Andrea Learns to Make Writing Hard,” Donald H. Graves details the process by which an eight year old named Andrea learns to write.

“Three months ago writing was effortless for Andrea,” says Graves. “It was as if there were no decisions to be made…. The subject predetermined the words. All she had to do was put them down.” Once written, Andrea’s words didn’t change. The first draft was also the final draft.

Over the course of three months, however, Andrea learned to revise, to think through word and sentence choices, to experiment with the ordering of ideas. To do so, says Graves, Andrea had first to let go of her attachment to “neatness,” or to thinking of the single written draft as something she couldn’t change or mar with revision notes. She also had to accept and implement directions from her teacher, including directions to insert changes into her written draft, to prewrite (here, by drawing the story before writing it), and to draft multiple versions of key sentences or paragraphs.

By the end of the three-month period, Andrea has adopted all of these activities into her own writing process. The result has morphed from a single draft to several pages of notes, alternate versions of topic sentences, and similar flotsam generated in the writing process.

Andrea’s process is similar to the process I’ve seen emerge from other student writers over the years. It suggests to me that the very process of teaching revision is one of the things that makes writing seem “difficult.” Beginning writers see writing as a one-step process: Write down the words in your head. As they advance, however, they begin to see writing as a more complex process.

You’re Doing It Wrong

The more complexities are required of a writer, the more difficult the task can seem. As educational therapist Regina G. Richards notes, “Many students feel writing takes too long. For some, writing is a very laborious task because there are so many subcomponents which need to be pulled together.”

Yet a complex process is not inherently a difficult one. Many complex tasks are time-consuming without being difficult (a point my own fourth-grade teacher was fond of stressing when we complained about tasks like copying out definitions from the dictionary). And many students master complex processes in other subjects, such as long division, without developing a lifelong antagonism with their “difficulty.” So what makes writing different?

In a 2009 article, Heidi Andrade et al. articulate an attempt to create clear, useful assessment tools for middle schoolers’ writing. Among the criteria included were measures that allowed teachers to mark down errors that “make the writing hard to understand.”

Yet, as Flower notes, the first step in most students’ – indeed, in most people’s! – writing process is to get their own thoughts on paper, irrespective of an audience. “Express your own thoughts” is, in a sense, the default state of writing. It is also, by its very nature, the most difficult for an audience to understand, because every point of reference is still the sole property of the writer.

In other words, when children find this sort of default writing marked down as “hard to understand,” the message they receive is “your natural instinct or approach to writing is itself an error.” 

These students are no longer starting from a “natural” or “default” state; rather, they are set back into the realm of actual error and the emotional unpleasantness that results from that.

“Accusations of laziness, poor motivation, and a reprehensible attitude are often directed toward deficit writers. The results can be a serious loss of incentive, a generalized academic disenchantment and demoralization,” says Melvin D. Levine (qtd. in Richards).

Yet often, these writers are not being “lazy.” They are operating from the default writing expectation or state because they lack the tools to do anything else  – and because they’re told that when they try, they’re “doing it wrong.”

What’s the Answer?

The answer, I think, cannot be to stop teaching writing as a process of reaching an audience. With the sole exception of the private diary or journal, all writing exists to be read by others.

Rather, I believe writing can be made easier by first acknowledging that “expressing yourself on paper” or “getting the ideas down” is not an error, but a natural starting point. After all, a writer who does not clearly understand their own ideas won’t communicate them effectively to others. Writers who write in terms only they understand are doing the natural first step in the writing process.

Once ideas are clear to the writer, then, perhaps teaching revision ought to be done in terms of the audience. Many of my own students reached college with the idea that “creating multiple versions of a thesis statement” or “coming up with an attention-grabbing first sentence” were writing steps that ought to be done, but with no clear idea why. When I explained to them that the entire purpose of these steps was to make sure your audience stayed with you, the lightbulb went on – and their papers improved.

Finally, perhaps it’s time for writers and writing teachers to step away from the page altogether. Taking the perspective of others is a skill. Like other skills, it improves with practice. Role-playing and similar tools may help writers bridge the gap from “my own ideas” to “ideas I share” without making the process feel like a total slog.


Writing doesn’t need to be impossible, but it is certainly work. Please consider buying me a coffee or sharing this post on social media.

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