Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers (1973) caused me to radically rethink my approach to teaching writing in the classroom. The book offers a method of improving your writing that doesn’t involve direct and constant intervention of a teacher. Crazy, right? Real growth comes from modifying your work based on how average readers experience your words. Average here has nothing to do with quality. The well-trained and sympathetic writing teacher is an ideal, and therefore unhelpful, reader. By knowing you and the assignment and the classroom setting, the feedback she provides, while useful, is divorced from the reality of the reader-writer relationship. This means no more mini-lessons on adding supporting details, developing topic sentences, etc. Writing isn’t something that can be broken down into discrete parts and taught. It lurches forward, improving and declining in uneven steps.
The book begins with the Elbowian approach to free-writing; a section awesome enough to warrant its own post. Elbow divides the rest of the book into three sections: writing as growing, writing as cooking, and the teacherless writing class. This post will cover the main points in each section. It’s my hope that you find the information contained in this book as useful as I did.
Writing as Growing
The first section opens with a brief discussion of the way most of us conceptualize the writing process. The traditional method of composition has at its core the notion of ‘control,’ exerting control over words, ideas, and organization. This translates into a process that begins with a clear, predetermined idea and works towards it with workman like efficiency. Anyone who has taught writing knows this model well. (As a side note, this traditional model finds an excellent contemporary analogue in Katie Wood Ray’s Inquiry model.) Get your ducks in a row and outline your major points before drafting. Elbow argues that this method of writing is backwards. Writing should be approached organically, he says. We should write before we even know our meaning; our words and ideas will gradually change and evolve as we write. Think of writing not as a way to transmit an idea but a way to grow an idea. A transaction of words that frees yourself from what you presently think and feel by giving up control.
Stop and take a second to let that sink in. I had to, at least.
This throws into question the entire enterprise of writing as a mere record of learning. How often do we write a draft and then fix it up? This one-and-done approach leads to half-baked ideas that, while perhaps grammatically and syntactically sound, lack any real assertion or vitality. We write something and then spend hours banging our heads against it. Elbow argues that this doesn’t work. The phrase ‘you can’t polish a turd’ comes to mind. We must push ourselves and our ideas to grow. How do we do this? While the book’s method is of course nuanced and multifaceted, I’m going to try and reduce it to the following steps:
Elbow’s Basic Approach to Growing
1. Write down everything you know about your topic (or subject or feeling or memory or idea or just whatever is sitting on the top of your brain). Don’t stop. Follow every digression and tangent.
2. Go back over what you just wrote and figure out what it wants to say. Make it say something. Reduce it to sentences that can be quarreled with. This process of summing-up should be difficult; you should learn something more than you already know.
3. Take your assertions and begin a new draft with them.
You believe X. While writing about X, you begin to realize that you actually believe in Y. This is a process of writing, summing up, and rewriting. Do this multiple times until a center of gravity begins to pop out. The developmental approach functions by way of a dialectic. It’s the interplay between writing and summing-up that moves the writing forward, not the adherence to a predetermined thesis. Elbow explains that while the developmental approach might be more work, the work involved is more productive. Think about writing as “successive sketches of the same picture, each one getting clearer, more detailed, and better organized.”
Writing as Cooking
Cooking is the term Elbow uses to describe the way writing needs to interact with others. Material is transformed through the generative interaction between multiple people, conflicting ideas, and different perspectives. Writing must be cooked -seen and reflected through the lens of others- in order to reach excellence. Cooking describes how we improve our writing by successively climbing on the shoulders of the way others see our text.
The basic approach to cooking
1. Allow others to read your writing. Do not give an intro or explain anything. No self-flagellation.
2. Every reader will describe the effect your writing had on them. How did it made them feel and what did it made them think of? The key here is that they respond as READERS, not students in a writing class picking at grammar or spelling or making suggestions.
3. The writer simply listens to each reader’s response. The material needs to cook and mix. Arguing with someone’s reading produces nothing but a stalemate. Ideas need to procreate, not lock horns.
4. Embrace disagreements and misunderstandings as the primary way to rethink your draft.
Summing up Cooking and Growing
Cooking means getting material to interact. The interactions most important to Elbow are the interactions between writing and summing up. Working in words and working in meanings. Growing means getting words to evolve through a series of stages.
The Teacherless Writing Class
According to Elbow, improving your writing has nothing to do with learning discrete skills or getting advice about what changes you need to make. This stuff doesn’t help. What helps is understanding how other people experience your work. Not just one person, but a few. You need to keep getting it from the same people so they get progressively better at transmitting their experiences while you get better at receiving them. How do we do that?
Advice to readers
-Point to specific words and phrases which “penetrate your skull” and explain.
-Summarize what you feel to be the main point(s), feelings, and centers of gravity.
-This isn’t a test to see if you understood; it’s a test to see WHAT you understood. This is an important distinction.
-Tell the writer everything that happened to you as you read the piece.
-Talk about the writing metaphorically: weather (foggy, sunny, gusty, etc.), movement (marching, climbing, crawling, etc.), clothing (jacket and tie, miniskirt, slicked back hair, etc.), musical instruments, animals, vegetables.
-Give specific reactions to specific parts.
-No kind of reaction is wrong. You are always right and always wrong.
Advice to writers
-Be quiet and listen.
-Don’t reject what readers tell you.
-Listen to they say it just as much (if not more) than what they say.
-Don’t be paralyzed by what they say. It’s their job to give you their experience. It’s your job to figure out what to do next.
This process of writing and sharing and improving takes many months. Be bold. Read out loud; don’t fear anything. Fear is the biggest impediment to good writing. When writing, alternate between between working things out in the medium of ideas and the medium of words. Engage every tangent and digression. Work every idea out to its extreme conclusion; explore every meaning and definition and direction until a center of gravity begins to occur. Writing without stopping is central to the developmental method. We can’t censor or alter or prejudge our words and ideas; we simply write them down and keep going. We can’t expect our best writing -or even good writing- in the initial stages. It’s crucial to understand that many of the words you write, perhaps all of them, may roll of the pencil feeling sour or wrong. Give yourself permission to write this way. Then, come back and pick out any words or phrases that seem to work. Don’t be hypnotized by your own writing. Kill your darlings. Editing occurs only at the end. Becoming a better producer allows us to become a better editor. Be ruthless as an editor. Cut out all dead wood. Arrange the words into a unified structure.
I love how the process described in this book changes the power dynamics in the class by restructuring authority away from the teacher and investing it back into students. I’m excited to use this approach in the upcoming school-year!