“Why should I think that?” Professor Larry McEnerney (University of Chicago) presses his students. They want to write better within academia and beyond. He pushes us to articulate what we’re doing when we’re writing:

1. We write to think about the world. Bulwarks of basic ideas scaffold the complexities that we grasp with the weight of cold steel wrenches as we fasten the bolts of new ideas right in front of us. Or, to put it more simply, we use writing to keep it all together since it’s too much for our heads. It’s the story of the great new idea we’re thinking of, a journal of how we got there and why it is.

2. We [i]read[i] for something valuable, to us. We don’t care to read someone else’s journal (unless that information would directly be valuable to us). We read to be informed, entertained, to find our way to our goals, not the writer’s goal.

This distinction is critical, and Prof. McEnerney goes into the different ways that this is true and why we as writers should pay attention. We often confuse our need as writers to figure something out, to think, with what readers find valuable.

So, what do readers care about? A problem that affects them and a solution that solves the problem. What’s remarkable about this simple formula is that it also mirrors what happens when considering creative writing (both creative non-fiction and fiction). It starts with a problem that we, the readers, would care about, and we journey toward its solution (or our failure) to achieve it.

One final thing about McEnerney’s talk that’s striking, what we do as writers isn’t just adding value. Still, we have to navigate adding that value in the language that our target reading community appreciates: their jargon, their code. WRITERS MUST KNOW THE CODE OF THEIR TARGET READERSHIP. His recommendation to learn it is to spend 15 minutes a week (or maybe a day?) and highlight all the terms specific to the discipline that keeps appearing. He intended this for academic audiences, but I suspect it’s true for the genres of literary fiction, fantasy, and even the non-fiction of self-improvement.

Professor McEnerney’s explanations are concise, practical, and clear. A valuable lesson to all those learning to write is the difference between writing for ourselves and others.


The Craft of Writing Effectively: takeaways from Prof. Larry McEnerney's lecture