Article Index

Six questions traditionally asked by journalists — who? what? when? where? how? and why? — can be valuable aids to invention in all types of writing. By using them as probes, you'll look at your subject more closely, and as you do, you'll find pertinent things to say.

By using them as probes, you'll look at your subject more closely, and as you do, you'll find pertinent things to say.

The six main questions can also be broken down into subtopics that offer more precise guidance than the major questions. The questions and subtopics may be used in any order. Use them if and when they can help you achieve your writing purpose.


Like the other questions, this one's value depends upon the spirit in which you use it. On the most superficial level, it might yield only a word or two: "this guy I know" or `Aunt Ginny." But answering the question that way is almost like not answering it at all. Getting beyond the surfaces of people-their names, labels, sizes-takes some time and concentration, but adds vital information and force to your writing. The list below contains only a few examples of the kinds of information you can provide under the heading of "who."

Subtopics for Exploring the Question of Who


Physical Attributes Personality Traits Personal History Characteristic Possessions
weight sense of humor religious books
height temper educational home furnishings
bone structure friendliness medical athletic equipment
hair honesty economic collections
eyes generosity military pets
musculature leadership geographic home
coordination competitiveness family clothing
body language compassion professional records
complexion self-assurance ethnic automobile


This list isn't meant to be complete. Probably you've already thought of possibilities, even entire categories, that could be included. You may also have seen that many subtopics could be broken down further and discussed at length, "clothing," for instance.

When you see this, you're starting to understand what it means to ask and answer the question of "who."


The question of "what" can open up interesting avenues of exploration. A whole essay might explore what happened, some event or incident you've chosen to tell about. You may want to show what a family reunion or a Cesarean section or a Bar Mitzvah or an elk hunt is. By seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling the events, people, and things in your essay, your readers discov­er what the subject is, what it means for you, and what you want it to mean for them.


Subtopics of What

What is its purpose?
What is its value?
What is its shape?
What are its limits?
What class of things does it belong to?
How is it similar to other members of its class?
How does it differ from other members of its class?
What are its parts?
Is it a part of a larger whole?
What is its color, weight, texture, sound, odor?
What is its history?
What are its causes?
What are its effects?
What is its duration?
What is its meaning?
What is its formal definition?




Everything happens in time, and the question of "when" locates events in time. On the most superficial level, this could mean just giving a date and time: 2:59 p.m., Thursday, July 12, 1996. In most writing, however, such exact fixing of time isn't necessary. "One rainy winter morning just before breakfast" may set the time nicely for one piece, while "Easter Sunday when I was thirteen years old" might do the job for another. When can also be used to show relationships in time, as when we say, "Before stepping up to the ticket booth, I stretched a little to make myself look taller." Like the other questions, "when" can be subdivided into subtopics that may help you uncover further possibilities for exploration.


Subtopics of When

When did this happen?
How often does it happen?
When had it happened previously?
When will it happen again?
Why didn't it happen at some other time?
What conditions must be met in order for it to happen?
What happened before this?
What happened after this?
What else was happening at the same time?
How would this have been different if it had happened at some other time?
How is it similar to things that have happened at other times?
Was this good or a bad time for it to happen?
When was it first noticed and last observed?
What were the characteristics of the time?
How long did it last?


It's hard to imagine a paper that would use all or even most of these questions. Still, this list should give you an idea of how the question of "when" can help you discover what to say.



Everything is somewhere, and describing that place serves two important functions. First, it permits your readers to discover the sights, sounds, smells, the whole physical environment. Descriptive detail enriches the environmental texture, making it fuller and more vivid. The scene is ren­dered and invites readers to enter it imaginatively.

Also, "where" can show how setting shapes events. How was the battle's outcome affected by the fact that it took place in a steep-walled canyon with only one exit? How was the family reunion influenced by its taking place for the first time at Uncle Ted's house? Might the crawdaddies have turned out differ­ently if you'd cooked them at home in your own kitchen?


Subtopics of Where

What is the immediate location?
What is its size?
What is its shape?
What are its boundaries?
Of what larger area is it a part?
What does it resemble?
How do people perceive it?
What psychological or emotional associations does it have?
What is its history?
What are its dominant sights, smells, sounds?
How is the place influenced by the participants?
How do these events happen to be occurring in this place?


Use the question of "where" to orient your readers and help them know not only where things are happening but what this place is like and why it is of importance.



The question of "how" directs us toward method and procedure, toward process. Readers might not understand the exact nature of the action or the various parts, steps, and stages that constitute a process. An essay on a family vacation might tell how the destination and modes of transporta­tion were chosen, how the reservations were made, how the trip was financed, how the car was packed, how seating arrangements were made, or how the tie­downs holding the roof rack worked loose. Or you might tell how you built a campfire, cleaned a fish, roasted corn, or packed home your trash. The point is that "how" probes large and small actions to reveal their inner dynamics.


Subtopics of How

What is the goal of this process?
How is success measured?
What is the importance of this process?
Is it primarily a natural or a mechanical process?
Is it primarily a mental or a physical process?
What experience or training is needed?
What preparations must be made?
What equipment is needed?
How does this equipment work?
What is the order of the steps or stages?
How important is this order?
How is each step performed?
What is the level of difficulty?
What is the importance of each step in relation to the whole?
What terminology must be understood
What are the characteristic pitfalls?
What does this process resemble?


As with the other questions, your thoroughness with this one will depend on your readers' needs and interests as well as your purposes in writing. How much do your readers want or need to know about the process of filling out an arrest report? How much do you want them to know? How will their hav­ing or not having this information affect the success of your writing? These are the kinds of questions you need to keep in mind when you work with the question of "how."



More than the other ques­tions, "why" asks for reasons, conclusions, thoughts. It asks you to analyze and explain the actions and events you're writing about. For this rea­son, it's less important to ask why in personal narratives than in writing about ideas. Some writers even say explanation and analysis should be avoided altogether, letting readers draw their own con­clusions from the concrete details presented.


Subtopics of Why

Why did this happen?
Why didn't something else happen?
How can we recognize a cause?
How many causes are there?
Which causes are more or less important?
Which are the direct causes?
Which are the indirect causes?
What are the surface motives?
What are the underlying motives?
Why were the motives expressed in this way?
What are the short-term objectives?
What are the long-term objectives?
Why was this method chosen to achieve the objectives?
Were the results intentional or accidental?
If accidental, what circumstances produced the accident?
Why wasn't the accident prevented prevented?


That is, writers should show rather than tell what happened and why. For instance, if I show a customer slamming money on a counter and stomping out of a store, I shouldn't have to explain that she did this because she was angry. Readers will draw that conclusion themselves. The point's a good one. Besides being unnecessary, such explanatory passages detract from the writing's vividness, substituting analysis for drama.

This doesn't mean, though, that the question of "why" shouldn't be asked, only that it should be asked carefully and that its answer will often be revealed implicitly through showing rather than explicitly through direct telling.

Whether or not you make great use of the question of "why," you should be alert to its possibilities. Like the other questions, it can help you develop a fuller understanding of your subject, and the better you understand your subject, the better your chances of writing well.


1.9 Look back over the questions you wrote for Activity 1.3. What use did you make of the Journalists' Questions? Use the Journalists' Questions, and especially the subtopics, to expand your list. Again, don't worry if your questions are profound or important. Include some off-the-wall questions if you want. Add at least ten new items.

1.10 Look over the list you generated in Activity 1.9. Try to find patterns, areas of related interest, and arrange the questions in groups according to their common concerns.