Andrew Johnson

On the Topic of Drainage Ditches

Andrew Johnson

May 5, 2021

The lifestyle changes mandated by the worldwide pandemic forced almost everyone in the world to confront and expand our beliefs about ways of being, requiring all of us to confront things we cannot see. This is dangerous and difficult; we don’t like making invisible changes, especially if we can’t tell how well they’re working. It can feel like we’re wasting precious time and effort and achieving nothing. We want to see results, immediate improvement, better grades.

This semester, I examined the foundations of my beliefs about writing. In past semesters, I mostly focused on the things we think about during drafting, editing, and revising: for example, argument structure, strong word choice, conciseness, and grammar. All of these tasks are important, yes, but they’re also in a sense surface-level. We can see them, so we can target them. But in writing, correcting these issues and only these issues is a bit like retiling a basement bathroom to prepare for a hurricane. I’m not saying it doesn’t need to be done, but it might be better to address less visible issues like drainage problems. A new ditch will not look as nice as new colorful tile, but it will be far more effective in preventing flooding.

This semester, my drainage ditch came in the form of the linguistic concept of topic focus. When writing anything longer than a paragraph or two, it can be easy to lose track of your topic, even if you know what it’s supposed to be. When speaking, this isn’t terribly obvious because spoken communication naturally meanders from point to point—but at the same time, most conversations don’t have a distinct topic. When written communication meanders, though, lost focus stands out much more clearly. However, we usually avoid including purposeful indicators in our writing; I haven’t seen anyone include a statement of, “Oops, I lost focus on my topic halfway through this paragraph” in their academic essay. Instead, lost focus results in weaknesses in the same surface-level components I tend to target. Often, trying to fix these issues without identifying why they’re there causes the same thing to happen in future drafts, and the student has no way to fix this except to retile again.

Instead of recommending retiling a student’s argument structure every paper, I need to begin by assessing whether the student needs a drainage ditch. What is the topic of the awkward sentence, paragraph, or section? Is that clear? Can we express the topic actively? If we can go below the surface and get the ditch excavated in the spring before the hurricane comes, we will avoid retiling the bathroom again every fall. It took a hurricane of a pandemic to prompt me to realize my writing didn’t drain properly, but hopefully I can communicate this to students (and help them build their own system) without needing another pandemic in the future.