The “So What?” Question

 As I was working my way through a stack of twenty-six literary analysis papers this weekend (I know – don’t ask.  It’s my own fault for letting students in over the enrollment cap.), I spent a lot of time thinking about what I and many other English teachers refer to as “the so what question.”

The so what question distinguishes the outstanding papers from the competent ones.  The so what question, as its name implies, simply looks at the interpretive claim you’re making and asks, “So what?” 

Three other ways to phrase the so what question are as follows:  What is significant about your claim?  How does this enrich my understanding?  What are the implications of your claim?  In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders.

When you’re in an academic writing situation, it’s easy to think of your job in terms of completing assigned work (or, to put it more bluntly, earning a grade).  And of course you are doing that.  But paper assignments ask you to think of your writing as a scholarly endeavor, a chance to share your interpretation of (in this case) a literary text with your peers and to persuade them of your claim’s validity.  The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.  The so what question asks you to explore your claim’s larger stakes in the hopes of uncovering significance.

As I was contemplating the importance of the so what question, I realized that the so what question itself had broader implications.  Imagining your reader looking at your writing and asking “So what?” can be beneficial in myriad writing situations. 

For example, at work, asking the so what question can help you focus on your document’s importance to its stakeholders, whether colleagues, supervisors, or clients.  It could also help you streamline emails, focusing on the message’s importance to the recipient.

Even the creative writing world could benefit from a healthy dose of “So what?”  Asking the so what question could keep you focused on a complex scene’s driving force and prevent it from getting lost in extraneous details or vague dialogue.  Bloggers can also focus on a post’s relevance to readers.

Considering the larger stakes of the way in which we spend and allocate our resources – including our time – could potentially be the best way to use the so what question.  Demanding significance from our daily lives (thinking, for example, I’m watching Battlestar Galactica right now, but does this expenditure of time  have a solid “so what?”)  could revolutionize our sense of living consciously. 

The so what question is powerful.  I’ll warn you, though, that the so what question is often difficult to answer.  Larger, what-does-it-all-mean questions often are.  In fact, the modifier I hear most often applied to the so what question is “dreaded,” as in The Dreaded “So What” Question.  (Cue the dramatic music.)  But, as I encourage my students, we can do hard things.  And the hard-won answers, when they come, are sometimes the most significant of all. 

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4 Responses to The “So What?” Question

  1. Eric says:

    Hi,

    I just found your blog, and I’m really enjoying it.

    The so what question is huge. Early in graduate school, I turned in an OK paper, and among the comments, at the bottom, the professor wrote, “So what?” I started asking myself that about every paper I turned in. That was probably the biggest writing lesson I learned in my quarter century of schooling.

    But like you said, answering that question can be a bear….

    Thanks,
    Eric

  2. loren says:

    Hi, Eric —

    I’m glad you found Writing Power. I agree with you: the “so what” question is alternately incredibly helpful and incredibly annoying. Let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see covered here, and I’ll see what I can dream up.

    Cheers,
    Loren

  3. Herbert says:

    I too, as an aspiring writer, have been asked this question – not by professors or teachers, but actually as a piece of advice from a blog I followed.

    It’s great to meet this advice early on, but at the same time, even though it sounds so simple, it is quite challenging.

  4. al stout says:

    As an English teacher, I’ve been searching for ways to “Clue” my students (AP English Literature, “regular” seniors and juniors…” into wyas of making certain they made some attempt at writing analysis/commentary which WILL try to answer the “question.” I’ve poured over the excellent papers from the past several years, trying to glean from them what “they” do differnetly than the 4 and below (on a 9 scale) paper.

    The difference seems to be the rhetorical/”reporting” verb + that statement somewhere in the paragrap, and espeically following offering evidence in support of a point or claim – for example, writing somehting like, “This line seems to suggest Hamlet has been in possession of his faculties throughout the play, ansd is not,m in fact, “mad.” OR – “Romeo’s mindless reaction to Tybalt death – killing Mercurtio – reveals his immature emotional state, and by proxy, represents the undeveloped civil sensibilities of those who chose sides in the city-state’s riots.”

    I think these are formulaic and a crutch – but, seem to distinugish more capable from less capable writers.

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