Here’s the question every writer must ask

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In university I had a professor who was terse and gruff, but soft as a pillow inside.

She was about 50, tall and thin, with wire-framed glasses and a perpetual scowl. Every time I thought she was going to blast us for being idiots, she’d make a joke.

If she railed on about how it was crucial to meet deadlines and use scholarly sources and cite them correctly and always run a spell check before handing in an assignment, she’d realize what she was doing and say:

“Nag, nag, nag.”

She seemed to genuinely want to hand out good grades, but she wasn’t the Good Grade Fairy.

If you didn’t put in the work, she wasn’t going to wave her magic wand and pretend you had.

You’d get the mark she thought you deserved, and if you disagreed with it she was more than willing to listen to your case for bumping it up.

A word of advice, though: Wait at least 48 hours, and make sure you’re sober when you fire off that email.

“Don’t drink and write,” she said.

We laughed, because to most of us this was common sense, and to the rest it was a good, practical tip that would come in handy the next time.

The most helpful thing our professor taught us about writing was the difference between a thesis and a self-evident statement.

If you wanted to write an essay about how indigenous people in Canada are still grappling with the legacy of residential schools, which is only one recent example of ongoing cultural genocide that stretches back to the time of first contact with Europeans, she would say:

“Yeah. I know that. We all know that. That’s what we’ve been talking about all semester. That’s the whole point of this course.”

Except she wouldn’t say it like that. All she’d say was:

“So what?”

It was her way of demanding we do better than state the obvious.

If we wanted good grades, we’d have to provide something that moved the conversation forward.

And so every thesis statement had to answer that question:

“So what?”

If we could answer it, maybe it was an idea worth pursuing. If not, we had to dig deeper.

There is a school of thought in professional writing that says it’s fine to steal ideas, as long as you put your own slant on them.

“Good artists copy,” Steve Jobs said, citing Picasso. “Great artists steal.”

It sounds wise, but it isn’t.

The truth is, bad artists copy.

Good artists do everything they can to avoid it.

Great artists bring something new to the table. They don’t stop pursuing originality simply because it’s hard.

Our ideas are shaped by the ideas of other people, of course. We encounter them in books, in music, through life experience and so on.

But there are still new ideas to be had. The Idea Fairy will bring them to us. All we need to do is think about stuff, and she’ll do the rest.

Really, that’s all there is to it.

As writers, we don’t need to be dumb, and we don’t have to be lazy.

If you want to know if an idea is worth pursing, ask the question our professor etched into our brains that semester.

“So what?”

If you have an answer, keep going. If not, try another tack.

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