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Four Eyes, Four Ears
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Looking for better ways to improve your essays, memoirs, and other assignments dropped on you by your language arts teacher? That are many, of course, but how about one you've probably never heard of. How would you like to sign a friend or classmate to be your "listener"? All you need do is jot down the people you study with, socialize with-then ask yourself the following question: which one of these people do I trust to look at my writing and give me an honest opinion of what's right, wrong or missing. Why should you do that? Why ask someone else to look at your writing after you've written the first draft? We look at our writing through rose-colored glasses, remember, and need the critical eye of someone who can be objective. That's your "listener," someone who can play the role of critic before your reader does.
You know that a family member can't be your listener, right? Why? They want you to feel good about what you write, of course, so they're going to tell you what you want to hear. Even if your writing gets first place in a contest called The World's Worst Writing, your family is still going to say, "Great job, kid!" So, forget family. That leaves a classmate, or a friend you can trust, or an acquaintance who understands your desire to get your writing right. If she hems and haws, tell her that there's something in it for her, too, because the listener idea is a two-way street: you get to be her listener, if she wants. If she's still not sure, remind her that when good ideas come from your discussions, it's the writer who gets the credit, not the listener. It's like having a consultant for free. In all, the listener idea is a good one, although sometimes a listener will make bad suggestions.
Keep an Eye on Your Listener
Too often, a listener will offer suggestions that reflect what they would do, or how they would write something. Sometimes they suggest change simply for the sake of change. Don't get caught up in that. Don't take someone's word simply because they choose to give it; if you follow someone's advice, always be sure you believe in it, and are convinced that it will improve your writing. Remember, you're the writer, the originator, and still have final approval.
Another pitfall is the listener who wants to be everyone's friend, and refuses to offer any suggestions that might annoy you. Good criticism often hurts, so be on the lookout for a listener who doesn't want to hurt your feelings. The best writers are those who listen to constructive criticism, then decide if the recommendations are valid. Remember, if the advice is good, if it improves your chances of a better grade, you get the credit. To add a touch of fun, turn your time with your listener into a kind of acting scene, where your reader plays the part of your teacher or parent. You both might get a laugh out of that. You'll also see how easy the transformation is, especially when your listener starts asking the kind of questions your scene partner would ask.
Listener Takes Center Stage
You know something about the reader, right, or can create an imaginary facsimile? Your listener may not, however, and may need some help playing the part. If so, tell your listener as much as you can about your audience, accepting that we seldom know all that we would like. It's your best guess. If your listener is unsure about that questions to ask, hand her a list like this, one you can create yourself:
Let's see if I can find your thesis statement.
Why is your thesis sentence located where it is?
Do you have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end? Show me.
Are your citations accurate and formatted correctly?
Do you use transitions to connect thoughts sentence to sentence?
What point of view are you using? Why?
Is your tone and vocabulary correct for your audience?
Do you have a meaningful closing paragraph?
(By the way, you should know the answers to all the above questions)
There are lots of questions that will help your listener respond, so don't be shy. If your listener is willing, ask him or her to read your draft out loud. Hearing your words will give you an idea of how your reader's little inside voice will "hear" them. Odds are, you'll hear something you don't like and make changes to syntax, punctuation, word choice, etc. The better you can close the gap between your assignment and what your reader is looking for, the more successful you'll be.
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