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12.3: My Letter to the Reader Assignment

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    Over recent years, I’ve developed my own version of the Letter to the Reader, based on O’Neill’s workshop and Bishop’s class assignments.

    For each essay, during a revising workshop, my students first draft their letters to the reader and then later, polish them to be turned in with the final draft. Letters are composed based on the following instructions:

    This will be a sort of cover letter for your essay. It should be on a separate sheet of paper, typed, stapled to the top of the final draft. Date the letter and address it to “Dear Reader.” Then do the following in nicely developed, fat paragraphs:

    1. Tell the reader what you intend for the essay to do for its
    readers. Describe its purpose(s) and the effect(s) you want
    it to have on the readers. Say who you think the readers

    • Describe your process of working on the essay. How did
    you narrow the assigned topic? What kind of planning did
    you do? What steps did you go through, what changes did
    you make along the way, what decisions did you face, and
    how did you make the decisions?

    • How did comments from your peers, in peer workshop,
    help you? How did any class activities on style, editing,
    etc., help you?

    2. Remember to sign the letter. After you’ve drafted it, think
    about whether your letter and essay match up. Does the
    essay really do what your letter promises? If not, then use
    the draft of your letter as a revising tool to make a few
    more adjustments to your essay. Then, when the essay is
    polished and ready to hand in, polish the letter as well
    and hand them in together.

    Following is a sample letter that shows how the act of answering these prompts can help you uncover issues in your essays that need to be addressed in further revision. This letter is a mock-up based on problems I’ve seen over the years. We discuss it thoroughly in my writing classes:

    Dear Reader,

    This essay is about how I feel about the changes in the
    financial aid rules. I talk about how they say you’re
    not eligible even if your parents aren’t supporting
    you anymore. I also talk a little bit about the HOPE
    scholarship. But my real purpose is to show how the
    high cost of books makes it impossible to afford college
    if you can’t get on financial aid. My readers will
    be all college students. As a result, it should make
    students want to make a change. My main strategy
    in this essay is to describe how the rules have affected
    me personally.

    I chose this topic because this whole situation has really
    bugged me. I did freewriting to get my feelings
    out on paper, but I don’t think that was effective because
    it seemed jumbled and didn’t flow. So I started
    over with an outline and went on from there. I’m still
    not sure how to start the introduction off because I
    want to hook the reader’s interest but I don’t know
    how to do that. I try to include many different arguments
    to appeal to different types of students to make
    the whole argument seem worthwhile on many levels.

    I did not include comments from students because I
    want everyone to think for themselves and form their
    own opinion. That’s my main strategy. I don’t want
    the paper to be too long and bore the reader. I was
    told in peer workshop to include information from
    other students at other colleges with these same financial
    aid problems. But I didn’t do that because I
    don’t know anybody at another school. I didn’t want
    to include any false information.


    Notice how the letter shows us, as readers of the letter, some problems in the essay without actually having to read the essay. From this (imaginary) student’s point of view, the act of drafting this letter should show her the problems, too. In her first sentence, she announces her overall topic. Next she identifies a particular problem: the way “they”
    define whether an applicant is dependent on or independent of parents. So far, pretty good, except her use of the vague pronoun “they” makes me hope she hasn’t been that vague in the essay itself. Part of taking on a topic is learning enough about it to be specific. Specific is effective; vague is not. Her next comment about the HOPE scholarship
    makes me wonder if she’s narrowed her topic enough. When she said “financial aid,” I assumed federal, but HOPE is particular to the state of Georgia and has its own set of very particular rules, set by its own committee in Atlanta. Can she effectively cover both federal financial aid, such as the Pell Grant for example, as well as HOPE, in the same essay, when the rules governing them are different? Maybe. We’ll see. I wish the letter would address more specifically how she sorts that out in the essay. Then she says that her “real purpose” is to talk about the cost of books. Is that really her main purpose? Either she doesn’t have a good handle on what she wants her essay to do or she’s just throwing language around to sound good in the letter. Not good, either way.

    When she says she wants the readers to be all college students, she has identified her target audience, which is good. Then this: “As a result, it should make students want to make a change.” Now, doesn’t that sound more in line with a statement of purpose? Here the writer makes clear, for the first time, that she wants to write a persuasive piece on the topic. But then she says that her “main strategy” is to discuss only her own personal experience. That’s not a strong enough strategy, by itself, to be persuasive.

    In the second section, where she discusses process, she seems to have gotten discouraged when she thought that freewriting hadn’t worked because it resulted in something “jumbled.” But she missed the point that freewriting works to generate ideas, which often won’t come out nicely organized. It’s completely fine, and normal, to use freewriting to generate ideas and then organize them with perhaps an outline as a second step. As a teacher, when I read comments like this in a letter, I write a note to the student explaining that “jumbled” is normal, perfectly fine, and nothing to worry about. I’m glad when I read that sort of comment so I can reassure the student. If not for the letter, I probably wouldn’t have known of her unfounded concern. It creates a teaching moment.

    Our imaginary student then says, “I’m still not sure how to start the introduction off because I want to hook the reader’s interest but don’t know how to do that.” This statement shows that she’s thinking along the right lines—of capturing the reader’s interest. But she hasn’t quite figured out how to do that in this essay, probably because she doesn’t have a clear handle on her purpose. I’d advise her to address that problem and to better develop her overall strategy, and then she would be in a better position to make a plan for the introduction. Again, a teaching moment. When she concludes the second paragraph of the letter saying that she wants to include “many different arguments” for “different types of students,” it seems even more evident that she’s not clear on purpose or strategy; therefore, she’s just written a vague sentence she probably thought sounded good for the letter.

    She begins her third paragraph with further proof of the problems. If her piece is to be persuasive, then she should not want readers to “think for themselves and form their own opinion.” She most certainly should have included comments from other students, as her peer responders advised. It wouldn’t be difficult to interview some fellow students at her own school. And as for finding out what students at other schools think about the issue, a quick search on the Internet would turn up newspaper or newsletter articles, as well as blogs and other relevant sources. Just because the official assignment may not have been to write a “research” paper doesn’t mean you can’t research. Some of your best material will come that way. And in this particular type of paper, your personal experience by itself, without support, will not likely persuade the reader. Now, I do appreciate when she says she doesn’t want to include any “false information.” A lot of students come to college with the idea that in English class, if you don’t know any information to use, then you can just make it up so it sounds good. But that’s not ethical, and it’s not persuasive, and just a few minutes on the Internet will solve the problem.

    This student, having drafted the above letter, should go back and analyze. Do the essay and letter match up? Does the essay do what the letter promises? And here, does the letter uncover lack of clear thinking about purpose and strategy? Yes, it does, so she should now go back and address these issues in her essay. Without having done this type of reflective exercise, she likely would have thought her essay was just fine, and she would have been unpleasantly surprised to get the grade back with my (the teacher’s) extensive commentary and critique. She never would have predicted what I would say because she wouldn’t have had a process for thinking through these issues—and might not have known how to begin thinking this way. Drafting the letter should help her develop more insight into and control over the revising process so she can make more effective decisions as she revises.

    12.3: My Letter to the Reader Assignment is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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