Peter Elbow

Notes from Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

Taking Charge: “Many people are now trying to become less helpless, both personally and politically: trying to claim more control over their own lives. One of the ways people most lack control over their own lives is through lacking control over words. Especially written words.” (vii). How do we gain control over words? “[I]It requires working hard and finding others to work with you.” (vii)

Defining Good Writing: Elbow does not try to define or even describe good and bad writing but rather tries to find ways to get us to better understand the good and bad writing we see all around us, to become more attention to the problems to be found in our own writing. (viii)

Credentials: The justification and “authority” that Elbow draws on for his ideas about writing are his personal experiences and difficulty with his own writing. (viii). He concludes that those who write with ease are not necessarily better writers than those who write with difficulty. (viii)

Teachers: The role of the teacher in helping others learn to write is simply to participate as a writer by presenting his or her own writing and providing reactions to the writing of others. (ix). Elbow’s theory of the place of teachers in writing is captured best in the title the book from which these notes are drawn–Writing Without Teachers. Elbow contends there is “a place where there is learning but no teaching. It is possible to learn something and not be taught. It is possible to be a student and not have a teacher.” (ix). Teachers are “more useful when it is clearer that they are not necessary.” (x). The role of the teacher is to be useful, it is not the teachers role to provide instructions and directions but to help the student do in a more lucid and powerful (commanding) way what she is already fully capable of doing.

Speaking and Writing: In speaking, we use language less consciously than when we write. Indeed, we are suspicious of a person, in ordinary circumstances, who seems to be carefully monitoring the words they use when they speak. We may consciously edit (by choosing carefully our words), when we try to be diplomatic, or talk with an interviewer for a job, even when we are angry and know that serious consequences may follow from what we say. But notice the difference, Elbow says, in the way we are so accustomed to speaking freely and then when we sit down to writing we become so cautious and guarded. Elbow argues that we can free up our writing and get more energy and “voice” into it by writing more the way we speak and trying to avoid the heavy overlay of editing in our initial efforts to write.

Writing & Editing: One of the innovations in Elbow’s method is the effort to distinguish between the skills and activities of creating and criticizing, getting writing done and then working on making the writing work for an audience. [In writing composition studies, this focus has been called “process pedagogy.”]

Freewriting: Elbow argues that the first and most basic step to improved writing is freewriting. Freewriting means simply that for ten (10) minutes you write without stopping. The idea isn’t to produce a polished (or even “good”) piece of writing, but to simply get in the habit of writing without censoring and editing. In freewriting, “[n]ever stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing.” (3). The only rule to follow in freewriting is to simply not stop writing.

Freewriting is a way to break the habit of trying to write and edit at the same time. Freewriting is difficult because it goes against the grain of how we are accustomed to writing. We normally edit as we write, pausing to collect our thoughts, recollect the correct spelling of a word, lining out a sentence that does not belong, rejecting a paragraph that doesn’t fit with the argument that we are making, stopping to think ahead to outline in our mind a structure or outline of the argument that we are trying to make. Elbow notes that “[a]lmost everybody interposes a massive and complicated series of editings between the time words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come off the end of the pencil or typewriter onto the page.” (5).

Editing, says Elbow, is not the problem. Reworking and revising writing is difficult enough, the problem arises when we try to rethink, rewrite, and revision at the same time we are getting our initial, fragmentary, raw, unshaped thoughts onto paper. We get “nervous, jumpy, [and] inhibited” when we write because we are trying to edit and write at the same time. “It’s an unnecessary burden to try to think of words and also worry at the same time whether they’re the right words.” (5). Consequently, it is the regular practice of freewriting (writing without editing) that “undoes the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are trying to produce.” (6).

Elbow recommends that you spend ten minutes each day doing freewriting. “You don’t have to think hard or prepare or be in the mood: without stopping, just write whatever words come out–whether or not you are thinking or in the mood.” (9).

The freewriting you do will ultimately effect your legal writing. “Freewritings are vacuums. Gradually you will begin to carry over into your regular writing some of the voice, force, connectedness that creep into those vacuums.” (7)

Plentifulness: One of the purposes in freewriting is to help you develop the sense that writing/words are plentiful and therefore we can discard them gleefully when it comes time to revise. Plentiful writing makes for a willingness to edit. Elbow assumes that by writing more, putting more energy into getting words on paper, in the raw, exploratory, first-draft, don’t-worry-about-an-audience writing, that we’ll then be freer to do the kind of revising and editing that needs to be done because we’ll have more words to work with and have less vested interest in the words we first wrote. “If you stop too much and worry and correct and edit, you’ll invest too much in these words on the page.” (29). The idea is to write freely and plentifully and so that you can discard all the rubble that you have produced. Elbow’s advice is to write in a way so that even though you produce some “garbage” you’ve also produced enough writing so that you can discard the “garbage” and still have the strongest possible writing to work with.

As Henriette Anne Klauser says, “The best antidote to writer’s block is–to write.” Elbow tries to free us up as writers by the use of freewriting. “Freewriting is the easiest way to get words on paper and the best all-around practice in writing that I know. To do a freewriting exercise, simply force yourself to write without stopping for ten minutes. Sometimes you will produce good writing, but that’s not the goal. Sometimes you will produce garbage, but that’s not the goal either. You may stay on one topic, you may flip repeatedly from one to another: it doesn’t matter.” (Elbow, Writing With Power, at 13).

Summing-Up (or, locating a center of gravity): From the raw and exploratory writing the next stage is to seek out a focus or theme in the writing. “It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having a center of gravity. There is a shape where a moment ago there was none.” (35) (See also, pp. 19-20). Elbow cautions that centers of gravity, which we locate by the effort to sum-up what we have written, are difficult to describe and require practice to locate. But in summing-up as in freewriting, the idea is to “[l]et the early ones be terrible.” (36). The point is to do the summing-up, even if you have to exaggerate. Judiciousness is not the quality you want to govern this part of your writing.

Editing: “Editing means figuring out what you really mean to say, getting it clear in your head, getting it unified, getting it into an organized structure, and then getting it into the best words and throwing away the rest.” (38).

Voice: Elbow focuses on writing without editing (freewriting, raw writing, exploratory writing, first draft writing, are the various terms he uses to name this kind of writing) so that we get the best of our uncensored thinking (raw and undisciplined as it may be), and so we can maintain some semblance of “voice” in what we write. “Your voice is damped out by all the interruptions, changes, and hesitations between the consciousness and the page. In your natural way of producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm–a voice–which is the main source of power in your writing…. [T]his voice is the force that will make a reader listen to you, the energy that drives the meaning” you seek to convey to your readers. (6). It is, says Elbow, the voice in your writing that contains its “source of power.” (7)

Reading Aloud: On the value of reading your writing aloud (82-83): “Hearing your own words out loud gives you the vicarious experience of being someone else.” (82). “Reading out loud brings the sense of audience back into your act of writing. This is a great source of power.” (83).

Garbage and Chaos: Elbow accepts the possibility that much of what we write is not going to be all that good, indeed, he sees this as inevitable in his method and something we can learn to accept if we simply learn to write more, write more freely with the idea that much of what we write is going to be garbage. Elbow puts it this way: “[T]here is garbage in your head; if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there. Garbage in your head poisons you. Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket.” (8). Elbow argues that “a person’s best writing is often all mixed up together with his worst.” (69).

There is a real pay-off when we write the “garbage” in our heads, looking as we are for “bits of writing that are genuinely better than usual: less random, more coherent, more highly organized.” (8). Our best writing takes place when the “mind has somehow gotten into high gear and produced a set of words that grows organically out of a thought or feeling or perception”; a state of mind different than what the mind we “achieve by conscious planning or arranging.” (8). “Sometimes when someone speaks or writes about something that is very important to him, the words he produces have this striking integration or coherence: he isn’t having to plan and work them out one by one. They are all permeated by his meaning.” (8). The language of the writing is “[n]ot merely manipulated” by the writer’s mind, but “sifted through his entire self. In such writing you don’t feel mechanical cranking, you don’t hear the gears change. When there are transitions they are smooth, natural, organic. It is as through every word is permeated by the meaning of the whole (like a hologram in which each part contains faintly the whole).” (8-9).

Elbow provides three key follow-up ideas for dealing with the “garbage” you produce in your writing. First, remember that you can always “[s]trip away the rubble” that is produced in your free, unedited writing. (10). Second, you are usually going to “throw away much more than you keep.” (11). Third, while this process of freewriting and then later stripping away the rubble may seem wasteful it is actually, a quicker, easier, better way to write. (11). The danger in the orthodox approach to writing is that what we do produce becomes so dear and precious that we can’t bear to dispose of it when it doesn’t work.

We deal with garbage, rubble, unwanted digressions, and unacceptable language (38-42) by editing–just “throwing away” what doesn’t work. (38). “The essence of editing is easy come easy go. (39). To edit as Elbow would have us do it, requires that you be prolific and produce writing that can be cut and trimmed; you must be awash in writing so you are psychologically prepared to dispose of sentences, paragraphs, and pages. “Editing must be cut-throat.” (41). Elbow believes that “[e]very word omitted keeps another reader with you. Every word retained saps strength from the others.” (41).

Chaos: Elbow encourages us to accept and make use of the chaos and disorientation that takes place when we write. (30-35). He praises the creative possibilities of the digressions that find their way into our thinking as we write. (34, 37). The reason for accepting the chaos is that: “[y]ou will waste energy and weaken your writing if you try to prevent digressions before they happen. Let them happen.” (10). “You can encourage richness and chaos [which may not be as bad as we think] by encouraging digressions. We often see digressions as a waste of time and break them off when we catch ourselves starting one. But do the opposite. Give it its head. It may turn out to be an integral part of what you are trying to write.” (34).

Dealing With Anxiety: If you have trouble deciding what to write and are blocked then “you should probably begin to suspect that some part of you is trying to undermine your efforts at writing.” (80).

The think-it-out-before-writing approach feeds into our anxiety about writing well. “Anxiety keeps you from writing. You don’t know what you will end up writing. Will it be enough? Will it be any good? You begin to think of critical readers and how they will react. You get worried and your mind begins to cloud. You start trying to clench your mind around what pitiful little lumps of material you have in your head so as not to lose them. But as you try to clarify one thought, all the rest seem to fall apart.” (27).

There are all manner of negative feelings we sometimes encourage when we try to write and we need to confront them and try to work through them. Elbow identifies a long list of these negative feelings: helplessness (vii, 12-14), lack of control (vii, 14-15, 31-34, 45-46), confusion (viii), turmoil (viii), torture (viii), stuckness (3, 17-18, 27, 29, 39, 45, 47, 80-82), awkwardness (5), chaos (7, 30), rambling (15), anxiety (27), disappointment (27), worry (29), disorientation (30), procrastination (31), disorder (41), pretending (44), swamped (45), embarrassment (80), fear (83, 122).

On Grammar: (136-138): Basically, Elbow advises us to “treat grammar as a matter of very late editorial correcting: never think about it while you are writing.” (137).

Writing Orthodoxy: Elbow promotes powerful writing by challenging existing the existing orthodoxy about good writing. We are told constantly to think out what we want to write before we start writing, to write following a plan, an outline, in essence to do our thinking before we even start writing. There is, in this traditional approach to writing, often as much focus on planning as on writing itself. It is, we are told, only after thinking through what we want to achieve with writing that we then set out to write. [For a description of the orthodox approach see pp. 19, 32, 70-72). Elbow upends this planning then writing approach in the belief that we best learn what we have to say and what we mean with the language we have chosen “only at the end,” only when we see what kind of writing we have produced. (15). We should expect to “end up somewhere different” than we begin when we start writing. “Meaning is not what you start out with but what you end up with. Control, coherence, and knowing your mind are not what you start out with but what you end up with. Think of writing then not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking.” (15). [For more on the grow and cook metaphors that Elbow uses in his “developmental” model of writing, see pp. 22-25, 42-47, 73; and pp. 48-75 on the cooking metaphor. For a practical description of how one goes about using the “developmental” approach in producing a finished writing see pp. 19-22.]. “Once you have gradually grown your meaning and specified it to yourself clearly, you will have an easier time finding the best language for it.” (21). It is, contends Elbow, in looking back on what we have written that we find the meaning for which we have been searching.

Elbow warns against trying “to break up the skill into its ideal progression of components which can be learned one at a time, but rather to try to set up some situation in which the learner can persevere in working at the whole skill in its global complexity.” (136).

On Giving Advice to Other Writers: Try to stay away from giving advice. (pp. 95-96).

Bottom-Line: “Writing badly . . . is a crucial part of learning to write well. . . . Schools tend to emphasize success and thereby undermine learning. When the price of failure is very high, a learner tends to close himself off from improvement . . . [in learning a] complex, global skill [such as writing].” (136).

“You can’t improve your writing unless you put out words differently from the way you put them out now and find out how these new kinds of writing are experienced.” (79). Some new ways of writing are going to “feel embarrassing, terrible, or frightening.” (80).

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