How to Explain Confusing Subjects
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
Start with the system, not the problem. Definitely not the solution. Save that for the end.
A couple stories to illustrate...
From my Sophmore year of college onward, I tutored writing. All in all, it was a great experience. Getting the chance to read something new everyday (and get paid to do it) was always an adventure. Along the way, I encountered some really sharp writers. Genuine Hemmingway types. Then, there were writers still working on developing a voice. Those were great appointments to have. I really felt like I was helping someone tap into their unexplored potential as a writer.
But what do you do when someone brings you a trainwreck? A paper that just isn't right for the job. We've all been there, but it can seem difficult to make sense of from the outside. There are errors, the meaning is unclear, and you finish reading more confused than when you started. Yikes.
When I was tutoring, this would happen from time to time. I'd read the paper, look up, and find a face staring at me with eyes that said it all: Please, help me fix this. Well, okay. I can help you shorten sentences. I can help you use active voice. I can help you avoid redundancy, and even help you avoid saying the same thing repeatedly. And, when you leave, you will have learned absolutely nothing, huh?
Shucks. How could I blame these students? Writing is hard.
This is a problem that dogged me for awhile. Till a memory from highschool leapt into my mind.
I was eighteen and had just gotten my first car, a white 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix. I loved that car. It always made me think of the scene in Star Wars where we see the Millenium Falcon for the first time. "Well, she may not look like much," I could see myself saying, like Han Solo, "but she's got it where it counts. I've even made a few special modifications of my own."
The issue was that, well, I wasn't quite up to making special modifcations. And the car needed it. One day I hit a pot hole and punched a hole straight through the tailpipe, right in front of the muffler. Or, at least, that's what my dad told me.
"So, um, what should I do?" I asked. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm no gearhead.
"I'd buy some Tiger Tape and muffler cement and reset the connection, if it were me."
Right. Muffler cement. Of course.
So, hopping in the family car, I sped off to the auto store. A couple fellas were working on a truck in the parking space next to mine. "Well, shucks, John--there's your problem! You're engine is in upside-down-back-ta-front."
Keeping my eyes low, I walked past the grease-covered real men and entered the store. A clerk with a goatee and a tattoo of a Ford Mustang on his arm looked up from his ancient computer and nodded at me. I nodded back. He looked down. Sighing, I shuffled up and down the four aisles of the store till I found Tiger Tape. Then, I repeated the process, this time looking for the muffler cement. I dumped them on the counter and pulled out my wallet, staring stupidly at the clerk.
"Having car troubles?" He asked. A sensible question, considering I was at the autoparts store. I definitely wasn't looking to have my nails done.
Instead of delivering a cuttingly witty remark, however, I simply muttered, "Muffler broke."
He nodded sagely.
A couple hours later, I had completely covered a pair of gloves in muffler cement and used way too much Tiger Tape. I had done it, though. My muffler was reaffixed to the tailpipe. For an hour-and-a-half. Then it was back to the autoparts store. This time, though, I talked to a different clerk and asked him for his advice. I ended up with a "connecter" which did indeed solve my problem. After I had purchased and returned about seven incorrect sizes and styles because I had no idea what I was supposed to be measuring.
That day (okay, that week) I learned a valuable lesson about working on cars. I also learned a valuable lesson about writing. Most importantly, I learned a valuable lesson about communcation: Start with the system.
When a student gave me a paper written completely in passive voice, I didn't tell them to change it to active voice. I didn't even point out the sentences that were in passive voice, at first. Instead, I asked them if they knew what passive and active voice were. I have yet to hear a yes to that question. So I explain the nature of active voice, then passive. Then we identified the sentences in passive voice. Then the student tampered with them till they were happy.
Eventually, I did fix my tailpipe. Then I fixed it again. I only managed it, though, after I learned the system. I grew to understand the tools I was working with, the measurements I needed, and the problems I needed to resolve. I learned the system.
So, when you need to explain a difficult process, start with the system. And do it gently. When someone is working at something new, they know next to nothing about it. That's a courageous move, stepping out into the unknown and attempting to master it. Respect that courage. Reward it.
'Cause you'll be on the other end soon enough.
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