A key question for writers: What’s missing?

jig saw puzzle with one item missing
Notice anything missing?

Writing teachers are supposed to teach students to  edit their own work. Sometimes we treat the task as nothing more than having students correcting misspellings and put commas in the right places. But the most important part of teaching editing is teaching students to ask what’s missing from their texts.

This week I was reminded of the necessity  of teaching writers to make sure they have not omitted any  information readers must have to understand their texts.

Tuesday  I picked up a copy of a free publication put out by a regional newspaper trying to drum up local readers. The banner story was about a business that is trying to get the local zoning law changed so it can be included in the commercial zone.

The most interesting part of the story was what wasn’t there: It didn’t say where the business is located.

In any zoning dispute, the location of the property is the central issue. Leaving it out of a news story is like reporting on the Kentucky Derby and not mentioning horses.

I know from experience with newly-hatched journalism graduates that they may need to report one or more stories a day for a year before they learn to automatically include the basic Five Ws and an H in each story: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

As a newspaper editor, I would never have described seeing a novice writer’s work every single day as a luxury, but it is. We writing teachers may see one document a week from our students. That’s nowhere near enough output for students to learn the necessity of editing their own work for errors of omission.

As a newspaper editor, I probably had more opportunities in one month to teach reporters to make sure they hadn’t left out any information that readers needed to understand the story than a writing teacher gets in a full semester.

If we value our reputations, we shouldn’t wait until students have mastered the writing process before we start teaching them how to edit for missing essential information.

We need to teach our students to:

  • plan their writing so it includes all the essential information
  • compare their draft texts to their plan
  • repair the draft so any missing information is included.

If we start early enough teaching students  to plan, check, and recheck their work so they omit no essential information, we at least stand a chance of turning out writers who can edit their own work and do so routinely.