So What?

Family Reminders (Charlesbridge, 2009)

When I start a new story or essay, I don’t necessarily know what the theme or focus of my story is.  I’m just responding to an idea and trying to develop it into a finished piece of writing.

However, once I’m done with a first draft, the next thing I do is ask myself, “So What? What is this story or essay really about?”

When you get right down to it, there has to be an answer to the “So What?” question for every piece of writing that you do.  Readers demand it. They want to walk away from a story or an essay with a new understanding of themselves or their world.  They want to have cried or laughed or felt something deeply. By answering the question, “So what?  What”s this really about?” you are figuring out how to give readers what they want.

So how do I figure out the “So what?” to my writing?  Well, I get out my writing journal and I spend time reflecting on and writing about the answers to these questions:

  • Why did I write this story in the first place?  What drew me to it?  Why did the idea spark?
  • What emotion or thought am I exploring or trying to capture?
  • What universal truths, emotions or themes does this piece touch on?  What is the point or message that I want my readers to take away from reading this piece of writing?

For instance, when I started writing the book, Family Reminders, I wanted to tell an interesting story of my grandmother’s little-girl days in a Colorado mining town.  However, when I was done with the first draft, I asked myself the questions listed above.  It was upon deeper reflection that I realized that this story was really about rising above adversity.  Mary McHugh, the main character, struggles with and eventually overcomes a difficult situation.  By the end of the story she turns tragedy into triumph.

When I’ve figured out the “So what?” of my story, I write it out in a single sentence at the top of each draft to keep it clearly in mind as I begin my re-vision process.

In my book, Family Reminders, I wanted my readers to be inspired by Mary’s bravery and her determination.  The focus statement that I wrote at the top of my revision drafts was:  Facing tragedy head on, with determination and open-mindedness, allows you to solve problems that at first seemed unsolvable. 

Knowing where I’m going and what I’m trying to achieve actually influences every revision decision, including what parts I need to cut or expand on, what words to use, and what examples to include.

For me, knowing the “So what?” is the essential first step in effective and efficient revision.  Without taking the time to ask and answer that question, the writing itself might be well-done, but without a clear-cut message or take-away, it is still unfinished.