Tag Archives: teaching writing

Audience Demystified

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Purdue University Global Writing Center

A common time to teach “audience” to students is during the revision stage of the writing process: “Draft for yourself, and rewrite for the reader,” say a great many writing tutors and instructors. The same goes for long-windedness and correctness: “First express your ideas, and then edit your words,” say many writing experts. Ever since the early 1980s when Peter Elbow wrote about the importance of prewriting as a distinct phase in the writing process, writing has popularly been taught as a recursive process, and not a micro-recursive process where a writer critiques while writing and rewrites before writing more but a process having recursive stages where in each stage writers give concentrated attention to certain aspects of the writing.


“The Recursive Stages of the Writing Process” [PowerPoint Slide]. Adapted from Learn to Edit and Proofread presented by Chrissine Rios (2015). KUWC Writing Workshops

The prewriting stage, for instance, is for invention—coming up with ideas, questions, and plans.

During drafting, writers generate a discussion having a beginning, middle, and end; a thesis or theme; supporting details and evidence; reflection; analysis.

Then during revision, writers step back and re-see the main idea(s) and revise to bring them more into focus, and this stage, along with the editing stage, is where taking audience into consideration helps writers revise and edit to more intentionally appeal to the readers.

However, at this point in the writing process, the writer should already have a sense of the intended audience for the chosen topic and for the purpose of the writing. Together, the audience, topic, and purpose are what make the writing a form of communication, which is the goal of writing academically, to communicate. In order to communicate effectively, writers have to think about what they are writing and why and for whom. All three of these elements should be considered at the beginning and during every stage of the writing process because they are together what makes the writing situation.

Audience, the paper’s topic, and the writer’s purpose are the writing situation.

“The Writing Situation” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the KU Academic Support Center

“The Writing Situation” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center

During tutoring sessions, I’ve asked students who the intended audience is, and one common answer is the “general public” or “society at large.” This is a good place to begin thinking about audience and how it influences what and why writers write.

To reach a general audience, writers will want to take a broad view of the topic and use plain vocabulary and syntax, so the writing is relevant and readable to diverse people. Most academic readers, however, will find such general discussions lackluster because they assume the reader doesn’t know anything. In most cases, the topic and purpose of a college-level paper will be better suited for an audience having college-level literacy skills, so the writer can best demonstrate his or her own college-level literacy skills and college-level learning.

Narrowing the audience helps the academic writer be more specific and develop ideas with more depth because narrowing the audience increases the shared common knowledge between the writer and readers. When students think of an academic audience, however, they will often go too narrow and only consider the professor. Especially when the professor assigns a specific topic and purpose for the writing project, students will be inclined to write only for the professor in response.

On the up side, students who consider the audience the professor will usually write within the parameters of the assignment requirements and strive for correct usage of standard American English and academic style. On the down side, writing for such a narrow audience as a highly educated professor who already knows more than the writer about the topic, can be very nerve-wracking; nothing will sound right to the writer, so it won’t sound right to the reader either.

The most effective academic writing I see is written for an educated audience within the student’s discipline of study or specific field because this is where the assignment will also usually situate the topic. I’ve learned from tutoring writing, however, that not all students automatically consider others in their field of study–other interested learners, educators, or professionals in the field—the intended readers. Helping the student see themselves within a discourse community in which their writing is adding to the body of knowledge on a topic is an important and fairly quick lesson to relay, and it can make all the difference in the student also knowing how to narrow the focus of topic and define a clearer purpose.

The narrower the audience, the more the writer can and must know the topic and express a clear purpose.

“Audience from General to Specific” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the KU ASC

“Narrowing Audience” [MS Word SmartArt] by Chrissine Rios (2016) for the Purdue University Global Academic Support Center

Some of the best student writing I see is in response to assignments that identify an intended audience in the directions: the business letter assignment, the proposal, the memo, the blog post. . .. However, sometimes the intended audience is harder to decipher from the directions.

I recently read an information technology assignment to write a white paper that explains the benefits of a new computer system, and “to explain” is usually to inform, but white papers are usually persuasive, so the purpose would likely be to convince the audience of the merits of the new system. I initially thought the student was to write informatively, but then it seemed he was to persuade. It could be both, but then, is the audience those who want to understand the benefits, or do they need to be convinced of them, and would those who approve already want to treated as though they don’t, and would those who need persuasion even read what they don’t see the point of?

Sometimes too, there are so many directions—explain this, list that, compare those, describe these, and finally, analyze this, and evaluate that, and all in one 3 to 5-page paper—the writer’s concerns are rightfully on addressing all the subtopics and demonstrating comprehension rather than who the intended audience is. But then, they also do not know where to begin, which is what brings them, thankfully, to the writing center.

Knowing the topic, purpose, and audience helps writers
know where to begin and which direction to go.

The exception to my advocacy of considering the audience early in the writing process is in creative writing. Poets, fiction authors, creative nonfiction essayists, memoirists, and other writers in the arts or really any writer who writes professionally or for the love or art of it, write with or without a particular audience in mind. These writers create their own audience. They put their voice, expression, and creations into the world and see how, where, and for whom they make an impact. Yet even then, the goal for many if not all is for the writing to connect with somebody, and when there is a somebody, there is an audience. In academic writing, we often begin with no intended audience in mind but try to identify one while prewriting.

If you teach or tutor academic writing, help your students consider audience at the onset of the writing assignment. Use yourself as an example of the typical academic reader to help them with the expectations of academic style, but also have them think of the audience as others like them who are interested in their topic or directly impacted by it, those who read at their writing level, and who are purposely reading to glean new information, beliefs, or understanding.

Additionally, if you teach within a specific discipline like behavioral and health sciences, education, criminal justice, law, IT, . . .  fire sciences, help students think about the expectations for communicating within that discourse community. Help them imagine where writing is used and why one would write on the assigned topic. Also, as one of my first writing instructors taught me, have your students imagine readers as nice people who care about what they have to say.

Finally, introduce the element of audience at the beginning of the writing project, and encourage writing as a process, so students have the opportunity to show what they know and write well.


6 Ultimate Resources on APA and Avoiding Plagiarism

by Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Man at computer with apple. (c) Clipart.com

(c) Clipart.com


Students frequently ask writing tutors for help with APA citations and formatting as well as how to avoid and understand plagiarism. Instructors, as well, contact the Writing Center for help with educating students about APA and plagiarism prevention. In response, and in addition to one-on-one tutoring and student and faculty workshops, the KU online Writing Center has been creating and curating resources on these essential topics since our opening in 2004.

The following up-to-date, easy-to-use resources provide the most current, APA 6th edition guidelines, address the most frequently asked questions by students and faculty, and are available to you for free. A colleague in the KUWC produced the video for students on understanding Turnitin, but each of the others, I’ve had a hand in developing and editing, and as the point-of-contact for resources at the KUWC, I greatly welcome your questions, suggestions, and feedback in the comments. Thanks!

Each link should open in a new browser window. Bookmark or save them to your “favorites” for quick access and future reference. Happy teaching, learning, and writing!

Basic Citation Guidelines

Last updated in July, 2015, this comprehensive introduction to citation defines plagiarism and self-plagiarism, explains why, when, and how to cite, and describes how to quote, paraphrase, summarize, and properly synthesize source material in a paper using each of these methods.

The resource has a table of signal phrase verbs, an example of block quote format, and details on how to cite images and electronic sources. Also included are discussions of fair use, public domain, and common knowledge. It’s a must-read for any student learning research-based writing and any instructor teaching it. Access it here: http://bit.ly/citation-guidelines

Common Citations in APA (6th Edition) Format

Last updated in August, 2015, this extensive resource provides the large and small formatting details of in-text and reference list citations from the common author-date structures to the lesser-known capitalization standards. Please, do not use a citation generator when you can see exactly how to accurately format over a dozen of the most common sources right here.

For each type of source, you’ll find examples of the signal phrase and parenthetical citation methods for quotes and paraphrases. Also listed for each source type are the corresponding reference citations taking into account source variations (with a doi and without, with an individual author or sponsoring organization, . . . ), multiple authors, and missing information.

The resource also links to video demonstrations on making a title page and reference list, and at the end of the document you’ll find a sample title page, body page, and reference list.

Every student writing an APA style paper should have this resource handy, and every instructor teaching APA ought to keep this one close as well. The Table of Contents makes navigating the resource easy, and being a pdf, it’s also searchable. When we update this one, we keep the link the same, so bookmarking is better than downloading. Access it here: http://bit.ly/APA-citations


APA workshops are extremely popular at the Writing Center, and we probably have a hundred archived. First presented in February of 2015 and given multiple times since, this one is a new favorite among tutors and students because it makes a clear connection between plagiarism and common citation issues.

The workshop’s five tips cover the most important concepts of citation in regard to plagiarism prevention including paraphrasing effectively, cross-referencing, matching in-text and reference list citations, and using the 80/20 principle, which helps students understand the importance of their own voice and how source information needs to be synthesized within a larger, original discussion about a topic. Access the workshop archive here: http://bit.ly/5-tips-for-avoiding-plagiarism


Last revised in November, 2014 and newly published as a self-paced video in August, 2015 just for you reading this blog, this resource was a collaboration between the Writing Center and the KU Provost Office. It is a comprehensive (and long but highly relevant) training resource for faculty that covers everything an instructor needs to know about plagiarism:

  • the policies and penalties for plagiarism,
  • how to identify common forms,
  • how to add an assignment to Turnitin and analyze a Turnitin report,
  • how to report plagiarism, and
  • how to turn unintentional plagiarism into teaching moments.

What is especially wonderful about this resource is the emphasis on educating students about plagiarism (not scaring them with warnings and penalties). The guide even provides helpful examples of how to respond to students who have plagiarized. The November 2014 updates reflect Kaplan’s updated Academic Integrity Policy and revised definitions of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, so if you haven’t had plagiarism training at Kaplan in over a year, then you will definitely want to review this one. Access the self-paced presentation here: http://khe2.adobeconnect.com/faculty-guide-plagiarism/. You can also download this as a pdf.


Last revised in November, 2014 and newly published as a self-paced presentation in August, 2015, this paraphrasing practice activity is one of the many helpful links in the “Faculty Guide for Plagiarism” linked above. Have your students practice paraphrasing using this presentation during seminar or as a discussion board activity. Access the video tutorial here: http://khe2.adobeconnect.com/p27h2w3mkih/. You can also download this as a pdf.


New in May, 2015, this 5 minute 50 second video introduces students to Turnitin. Instructors rely on Turnitin to help identify and assess source use (and plagiarism). Turnitin is a great learning tool for students too, but not if they haven’t been taught how to read a Turnitin report. In this tutorial for students, KUWC tutor, Molly, clearly explains how to read and understand a Turnitin report.

If you use Turnitin in your courses, especially if you share the reports with your students, this video would be a great help to your students. It will answer their most immediate questions and help them learn as intended from their Turnitin reports. Access the video here: http://bit.ly/turnitin-for-students


If your questions about APA guidelines fall outside the information provided, I suggest you do what we in the Writing Center do: First, if you have the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th edition), look it up there. Next, check the APA Style Blog. If you still have questions, your friendly KUWC tutors are available to assist any and all Kaplan University students and faculty!

The Big Misconception about Writing to Learn

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who’s heard this one before?

(c) clipart.com

(c) clipart.com

“I can’t write.”

In the twenty years that I’ve been tutoring writing, I’ve heard it a bunch.  Even if you’ve been an educator for one year, if you’ve assigned an essay, you’ve likely heard it.  In fact, I’m guilty of saying it!  It’s truly hard to get started sometimes, and that is usually the diagnosis: writer’s block.  Invention strategies like freewriting can help:  Just start writing, and the words will come, right?  The idea is that the very act of writing will help you learn what you have to say, or as put by some more famous writers as quoted on Goodreads:

  • “Writing is thinking on paper”  (William Knowlton Zinsser).
  • “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (E.M. Forster).
  • “I write to discover what I know”  (Flannery O’Connor).
  • “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (Joan Didion).

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of encouraging revision in Writing Across the Curriculum courses because revising involves making “decisions . . .that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters” (Rios, 2015).  In short, I was saying that revision evokes critical thinking, and we want our students to think critically, yes?

Writing-to-learn emerged in the 1970s as a model of education in which writing became more than a method to help students communicate effectively; it was also a method that Klien (1999) described as helping students “think critically and to construct new knowledge” (p. 203).  Klein’s research, to be fair, actually exposed the inconclusiveness of the writing-to-learn research as of 1999.  He explored the “hypotheses concerning the role of writing in thinking and learning” during the writing process (Table 1) and found each of them valid but lacking in empirical evidence regarding how writing contributes to the construction of knowledge and when.

In his analysis of the cognitive processes involved with each of the writing-to-learn hypotheses, he even argued that because of the “misconceptions that arise wholly from language,” such as the concept of heating being confused with insulation (“warm sweater”) and fertilizer being confused with photosynthesis (“plant food”), freewriting derived from spontaneous language full of misconceived knowledge “may not lead to the revision of students’ existing conceptions” (p. 219), i.e., learning, unless, however, the freewriting involved reflection and critical thinking, which is where the research is today:

Writing is a tool for critical thinking only when one is thinking critically.

Writing is connected to learning only as much as a person knows how to learn.

It’s not automatic.  Writing words does not equate learning.

As a writing tutor who also taught college composition for years, I can hardly keep myself from deleting that line, for I’ve always believed that writing triggers the same brain synapses as learning.  But according to research since Klein such as that of Fry and Villagomez (2012), “the impact writing has on student learning depends on context” (p. 170) such as how experienced the students are with writing-to-learn, whether or not “the writing task required metacognition,” (p. 170) and whether the students received positive instructor feedback to encourage deeper thinking.

So what does this mean for you?

Assigning an essay and encouraging writing as a process sets the stage for learning, but it does not guarantee learning will happen.  You also have to teach students how to use writing to learn, how to think critically.

When your students come to the Writing Center with complete drafts of assignments from your class, and they know they need to revise, but they do not know how or why, or they come with your assignment instructions knowing they need to write a college-level essay but say, “I can’t write,” the problem may not be their writing but rather, their thinking, and it’s not that students can’t think, either.

The assignment itself needs to prompt critical thought. Also, the students need to know that their goal is to learn, not just write in APA format. They need to be metacognitive and think about their thinking as they are writing. Goodwin (2014) suggests you “introduce students to the language of logic and reason, providing them with an approach to analyze their own and others’ thinking” (para. 13).  You don’t want to tell the student what needs to go in every paragraph, for instance, and assignments that rely too heavily on research or ask students a series of questions to answer with research may also stifle self-aware critical thought.

Consider this:  If students have to research first then write their paper, how different is that from the current traditional education in which writing is considered a two-step process: think first; write second?  Students will report on the research as instructed and put their efforts into writing cohesive and clear sentences instead of questioning or reasoning.  They will essentially write an elaborate summary.  Summary has its merits.  It’s fundamental, in fact.  My kindergartener is learning how to summarize.  It shows your understanding of a text, but it doesn’t require you make something of it.  Just saying.

There’s also a difference between writing that communicates a clear and well supported idea and writing that analyzes, evaluates, reflects on, and/or makes sense of content by forming new relationships between ideas.  Writing can be and do both; academic writing should be both clear and critical.  That’s scholarly discourse.  But both are learned, and especially in the lower-level courses, you may need to decide which is more important at the time, academic style or writing-to-learn, for an essay based in reflection or reasoning that encourages critical thinking might not be tidy or conclusive.  It might expose contradictions and leave them unresolved.  It might explore multiple possibilities instead of focusing on one sustained line of thought. But this too is why reflective journals are assigned along with research papers in many composition courses. You might try it.

The purpose of critical thinking is to construct new meaning, discover new relationships, learn.  Writing is an ideal method for critical thinking because through writing, students can reflect, analyze, evaluate, and reason.  So writing remains an effective way for students to make sense of course content. But the goal of the writing task should not be to report the course content back to you—that banking concept of education didn’t work. Remember Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970)? Students learn better when asked to solve problems.

Will students also write better when the purpose is to solve a problem?

That may depend on what we–you and I (speaking on behalf of the Writing Center)–teach them about writing. Always know that the Writing Center is here to help.


Fry, S. W., & Villagomez, A. (2012). Writing to learn: Benefits and limitations. College Teaching, 60, 170-175. doi: 10.1080/87567555.2012.697081

Goodwin, B. (2014). Research says / teach critical thinking to teach writing. Writing: A Core Skill, 71(7), 78-80. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr14/vol71/num07/Teach-Critical-Thinking-to-Teach-Writing.aspx

Klein, P. D. (1999). Reopening inquiry into cognitive processes in writing-to-learn. Educational Psychology Review, 11(3), 203-270.

Rios, C. A. (2015). How to make your students’ writing matter–to them and to you. Retrieved from https://purdueglobalwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/how-to-make-your-students-writing-matter-to-them-and-to-you/

Table 1. Adapted from Klein (1999):

Klein 1999

Note: Adapted and intended for individual use only.

When Students Write About Personal Pain

By Teresa Kelly, Kaplan University Composition Faculty

© 2014 Clipart.com

© 2014 Clipart.com

As family, friends, colleagues, and fans worldwide mourn the death of comedy legend Robin Williams from suicide on August 11, composition instructors face another of those moments where outside events bring scary and uncomfortable realities into writing classrooms. This tragedy can become a teaching moment and a chance to open a dialogue about suicide prevention and mental health issues, as long as educators remember that they are not mental health professionals and seek appropriate support.

According to the Ohio State University suicide prevention site (2014), college students face special risks for suicide – including substance abuse, stress, and isolation. Often, these students seek help in settings they perceive as safe – such as through an assignment or a relationship with a trusted instructor. The Brazelton Center for Mental Health Law (2007) notes that even students who have issues but don’t self-identify will exhibit warning signs.

Composition sees more soul-bearing work than many other disciplines because it asks students to be passionate about their subjects. An educator’s worst nightmare is the moment in class, through discussion, via a journal, or through an assignment, that a student reveals something that leads to fear for the student’s safety or that of others. Being on the receiving end of an “I think about death” post is a scary, lonely, and helpless feeling. However, there are strategies to help composition instructors intervene with students who need help.

According to Brazelton (2007), helping a potentially troubled student starts before the student even enrolls in a course. Educators should learn to identify possible warning signs and must know their institutions policies and procedures for aiding students, including student assistance services, reporting procedures, and what to do in an emergency situation. “Listen” to what students are saying in their writing. Value their words and look beneath the surface. Knowing warning signs can help identify a potential issue with a student who does not come out and write “I want to die.” Learning about resources before a student is in crisis allows an instinctive, immediate response.

Above all else, warning signs cannot be ignored. Instructors who need help identifying or responding to a potentially suicidal student should reach out to their institution before a need arises. Educators teach more than composition, history, or biology. We teach students. They are always our first concern. If anything is to be gained from the untimely death of Robin Williams, who brought joy to millions, it is that suicide does not discriminate. Know the signs and know what to do – for you and your students.



Brazelton Center for Mental Health Law. (2007). Supporting students: A model policy for colleges and universities. Retrieved from http://www.tucollaborative.org/pdfs/Toolkits_Monographs_Guidebooks/education_supported_education/Bazelon.pdf

Ohio State University. (2014). Identifying risk factors. Retrieved from http://suicideprevention.osu.edu/prevention-information/warning-signs/

4 Practical Tips for Writing with an Academic Voice

Patricia Drown, Kaplan University Faculty, Social And Behavioral Sciences

© 2014 Clipart.com

© 2014 Clipart.com

Nothing can put fear in to the heart faster than the prospect of academic writing. Our mind immediately fills with pictures of quill pens, dusty libraries, and some robed and bespectacled scholar bent over parchment spilling out polysyllabic words that will ring down through the ages. Relax. Academic writing is far less complex than it sounds.

I will leave it to others to explain the nuances of in-text citations, formatting, and references. What we want to think about first is voice. The tone of your paper is what makes it academic just as assuredly as the format–perhaps more so.

We have become a world of casual writers. Online students commonly use texts, emails, and Twitter to connect with peers and faculty, which can take academic writing from the realm of formal communication to something akin to chatting over the back fence. And there is a place for that. Just not in academe.

So how do you make the switch between the writing style that makes you a hit on Facebook and a writer presenting scholarly ideas?

Here are four practical tips for writing with an academic voice:

1.   Remember for whom you are writing. You may communicate with your colleagues, classmates, and even your professor regularly, but when you communicate with any member of the academic community, you take on the responsibility of academic writing. Your academic audience expects a professional presentation of ideas–thoughtful, organized, and concise. In your own reading, who do you take more seriously–the writer who uses slang or starts a sentence with “OK” and assumes you understand, or someone who is in command of the ideas and expresses them clearly and concisely to ensure you understand?

2.   Use simple and accurate wording. You do not have to be stiff and stuffy or use big words, but you should make every attempt to incorporate the language of your discipline within your writing. This not only helps your reader to relate to the topic, but also to you as a kindred spirit in the field.

3.   Write out every word. Avoid contractions such as “didn’t” and “won’t”; write “did not” and “will not” instead. You will be surprised at how quickly using a formal style elevates the communication and overall fluidity of your writing.

4.   Finally, remember you are a scholar. You are an expert on whatever subject you are sharing if you have done the research and are prepared. Presenting it with a formal, academic voice helps to validate the good and important research you have done and the conclusions you have drawn.

So, hold your head high, and face that keyboard without fear. Apply these simple tips to hone your academic voice and believe that you are an academic writer!





Five Steps to Writing with Mindfulness

Kathleen A. Bishop, MS, PhD, Kaplan University Health Sciences Faculty

© 2014 Clipart.com

© 2014 Clipart.com

Today is the day I’ve decided to write my first blog post for the KUWC, and like all writers I am a little nervous about the whole thing. Will it be good enough? Is the grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure correct? I wonder if the other faculty members will like my writing or if they will think it is boring, simplistic, or uninteresting. Wow! While all of these thoughts are running around in my head how can write? I can’t!

So what are my options? I can just choose not to write. I can chicken out and send an e-mail to the blog editor saying I am too busy and have to forgo the opportunity. Or I could just take a few minutes and do what I do each morning before I start my day—meditate and calm my mind and my body and find that quiet place within me.

Mindfulness is a wonderful practice that I have used in my classes for 20 years. Before we begin class or the assignment we take 60 seconds to get relaxed, centered, and simply breathe. Yes breathe! My students have learned how to focus their attention on the seminar, the class, or the assignment they are working on in just 60 seconds. You have 60 seconds don’t you?

The directions are below.

1. Get comfortable in your chair or wherever you are sitting.

2. Since we hold a lot of tension in our hands, let’s give them a good shake. Now place them in your lap, on your desk, or wherever they would be most comfortable.

3. You can do this exercise with your eyes open or closed. I like mine closed because I am a visual learner, and I get distracted by what I am seeing. So I close my eyes, but you can leave yours open with good results as well.

4. Next, begin by taking three deep breaths but not so deep that they make you cough. Count one on the in breath and two on the out breath. Do that slowly three times.

5. Finally, take a minute and think about how you feel. Is your mind calm? How does your body feel? Has the tension gone out of your muscles? Have your shoulders dropped away from your ears? Has your mind calmed down and cleared? If so, you are ready to being the writing process.

Okay take 60 seconds and try it out!

When the mind is filled with rambling thoughts, fears, and questions it cannot be creative, focused, or fruitful. So begin each writing period like this, and if you lose your focus in the middle of the writing process, stop and do the exercise again. It will only take 60 seconds out of your writing period, and it will give you many minutes of clarity and creativity to use toward a paper or even a blog post!

Note: In addition to reading Kathleen’s posts here, you can also find her on www.unlockthedoortolearning.com.

Hooking Your Readers with Some Help from Jaws

David Healey, Kaplan University Composition Faculty

© 2014 Clipart.com

© 2014 Clipart.com

Hooking your readers turns out to have a lot in common with pretending to be a shark. One of my favorite childhood memories is of being at the beach on Cape Cod and scaring my mom. My middle brother and I would swim underwater and grab mom’s legs, causing her to shriek and run for shore. What fun!

It was the summer that the paperback version of Jaws came out, and mom read it in her beach chair and evenings at the cottage. The result was that every ripple in the water and every kid grabbing her legs became a Great White in her imagination.

Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum!

I was thinking about Jaws and that long-ago summer because in class we recently focused on tips for hooking readers. Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel makes a great example of how to hook a reader, and I often read a few sentences to students. It’s an opening that’s as menacing as it is spellbinding:

“The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. … The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraodinary to the small, primitive brain” (Benchley, 1974, p. 3).

That’s not bad for a novel he banged out in a rented room above a garage (Wyatt, 2006). With the students, we also talk about the opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie where the shark gets the woman who goes for a midnight swim. This is not recommended viewing if you are thinking about a beach vacation!

A discussion of Jaws also touches on the issue of pre-writing strategies and revision. Originally, Benchley wrote the first four chapters as a comedy. His editor sent back those chapters and asked him to revise his work by writing a realistic thriller (Gilliam, 2002).

But with the opening lines and images from Jaws, what we’re focusing on in class is the narrative approach for hooking readers, which works just as well in nonfiction essays as it does in fiction.

Students sometimes have great success with this approach. For example, here’s an introduction written by CM220 student Elizabeth Buckhannon as part of her first draft or “blueprint for success” in Unit 6:

“Students with bipolar disorder have a hard time in class; they often need help from teachers and aides. All it takes is for the teacher to change their teaching method, so these students are getting the education they need. Teachers and other school staff need to be educated about the disorder and be trained on how to best help these students. They can help the bipolar student by being flexible, allowing extra time and frequent breaks, encouraging them, and staying in contact with their parents” (Buckhannon, 2013).

She did a great job with that introduction. But after our discussion of the narrative approach, here’s what the student wrote in her revised introduction, imagining an individual with bipolar disorder named Maddie:

“Maddie has a hard time in class because of her bipolar disorder. She has frequent mood changes throughout the day, which sometimes cause her to act out. She wishes her teachers would understand what she is going through and be more sympathetic. She wants to do well in school, but finds it difficult because of her teacher’s teaching method. Teachers and other school staff need to be educated about bipolar disorder and be trained on how to best help students like Maddie. They can help these students by being flexible, allowing extra time and frequent breaks, encouraging them, and staying in contact with their parents” (Buckhannon, 2013).

Clearly, this student embraced the narrative approach to create a stronger introduction (along with a great thesis statement!) in this revised effort.

Jaws isn’t the only example we can find of a narrative approach to a good hook. When asked, students often come up with other examples from books and movies. Hopefully, our classroom discussion inspires some good writing—even if we might think twice about taking that late night swim.

Oh, and thanks to mom for being a good sport and taking us kids to the beach. Who knew it would lend itself to the study of writing techniques for hooking your readers all these years later?


Benchley, P. (1975). Jaws. New York: Fawcett Crest Books.

Buckhannon, E. (2013). Teaching the bipolar student. Unpublished manuscript, Kaplan University.

Gilliam, B. (2002). Peter Benchley: The father of Jaws and other tales of the deep. Retrieved from http://www.peterbenchley.com/articles/peter-benchley-the-father-jaws-and-other-tales-the-deep

Wyatt, E. (2006, February 13). Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, dies at 65. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/13/books/13benchley.html