Five W's and an H
Teachers from Socrates to your high school English teachers have championed perhaps the simplest and most familiar way of coming up with a topic: ask questions. Journalism has taught us that these questions might be very simple: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? Answering these questions initially doesn't seem very hard - at least, until one gets to the why and how. Then it gets tricky. The relationship between Marlow and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is, a writer thinks, like Marlow's relationship to Jim in Lord Jim. How? Well, in some ways Jim is like Kurtz. OK. But how is he like Kurtz? And why does Conrad draw that parallel? To answer all of these "why's" becomes increasingly difficult. After all, one can ask "Why?" until the cows come home.
However, it is precisely when the writer has difficulty answering a "why" that a real paper is beginning. When the answer comes too easily, the writer is on familiar ground; he is probably not saying anything that interests him or his professor. It is only at the point where the writer is legitimately confused that real thinking - and real writing - begins. Consider the following conversation between a student writer and tutor. Note that the more flustered the writer is, the closer he is to a good idea.
- "I don't like Heart of Darkness."
- "Why not?"
- "Because it's a racist book."
- "Why do you say that?"
- "Because it presents stereotypes of Africans that are clearly wrong."
- "What stereotypes are you referring to?"
- "Well, there's that scene where they're in the woods."
- "What about that scene?"
- "It's disturbing. They call the natives ants."
- "Where? Can you show me?"
- "Here ... Oh. Well, he doesn't call them ants here, but this is the scene. Look at this ..."
- "What do you think Conrad is doing?"
- "I think he's saying that the natives are inhuman... No, wait... He's saying that the whites see them as inhuman... It's hard to determine what he's doing."
- "Interesting. Why do you think it's hard to determine what Conrad is saying about race?"
The tutor is giving the writer an opportunity to answer, and is waiting for the light bulb to appear over the writer's head. If the light bulb stays unlit, the tutor will ask more questions until the writer has a lead on his topic. Note how the tutor has used this method to get the writer to go back and look at the text. His paper will be more thoroughly considered than it would have been had he not used the five W's and an H.