"Who Cares? " Test
by Owen Williamson
In every piece of academic, technical or
professional writing you produce, apply
the "Who Cares?" test. In other words, ask "Who cares" about what I am
writing? Be frank with yourself. If the answer is "Nobody!" then DON'T
So what do you do when you are stuck with a writing assignment that at
first glance does not seem to pass the "Who cares?" test?
1. If possible, make it important to you by choosing a subject (or an
aspect of the subject) that you, yourself are
interested in, or can get interested in it for the moment. Or, find a
aspect of the assigned subject that may interest either you or your audience. If
you're assigned to study the election of 1880, probably you don't give a
toot about it, but perhaps the professor does. (Of course, the professor who
assigned it probably knows all the basics of it already, so just going
back over those basics most likely won't pass the "Who cares?" test.) Always serve
your audience, so find something about the election that might interest
either you, the professor, or some other audience.
If you can't interest yourself, at least serve your audience, and serve
them obsessively. Or else toss it out.
2. If it's for a grade, maybe it's the grade
itself that makes you care about it. Let that thought of the grade
propel you into making the best, most interesting paper you can.
But, always try to add some extra "plus," some "spice" in the paper that
will go beyond simply getting the grade or doing the minimum to fulfill
3. If you can't find any aspect of the assigned
subject that you can get interested in, maybe it's just too boring, but
your own "boring" filter is set too high. Most probably, the
problem is that you have chosen
to set your personal interest filter too narrowly. If the ONLY thing
that interests you in this whole world is duck hunting, sports and coaching,
Harleys, differential equations, sex, Belgian waffles, the poetry of Spencer or playing
you can always choose by your own decision and your own will to become
interested in other things. It'd certainly help your own education,
growth and maturity. The more things you can get interested in, the
better off you are! The narrower your knowledge and interests, the
more boring you yourself are (and the less employable on the job
market and the less enjoyable as a friend or a lover).
4. Remember, grammar, spelling, punctuation and
vocabulary errors can be fixed, but boring can't be fixed! So ALWAYS
apply that "Who cares?" test to all your writing.
Even the most
important, vital, exciting piece of writing with technical errors needs
to be fixed up to be valuable, but a perfectly proofread, grammatically
correct piece of writing that says nothing is utterly worthless,
no matter how correctly written.
Author Tim Albert, in his book,
A-Z of Medical Writing, puts it
another way: "Effective writing achieves the purpose we set for it." It
is not written to satisfy some urge or itch within the writer. It is not
an abstract art form, but rather a tool to achieve a given goal. If you want to
get it published and it is published, you have achieved your goal and it is
good writing no matter how the grammar, spelling or rhetoric are in the
text. If you want an "A" and get a "C" you have fallen short of
accomplishing your goal, no matter how perfect your writing. "The principle is that writing is your
servant, not your master. If you define in advance what you want your
writing to do [not just what you want it to be], you can also define in advance how to measure it."
university-level writing is never written simply for a grade (though that's
certainly one purpose for it!). It is written for you to learn, and, one
hopes, for the audience (the professor, other students, or a larger real
audience) to be informed, interested, entertained or persuaded. If you learned nothing and have
neither informed, entertained nor persuaded your audience, your writing does not pass the "Who cares?" test and should be tossed
into the trash.
OW rev 1/09