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 have us better understand the good and bad writing we see all around us, and to become more attentive to the problems found in our own writing. (viii)

Credentials: The justification and "authority" that Elbow draws on for his ideas about writing are personal experience and the difficulty he has experienced with his own writing. He concludes that those who write with ease are not necessarily better writers than those who write with difficulty. (viii)

Teachers: Teachers help you learn to write by responding to your writing and presenting their own own writing to you. (ix). Elbow's theory of the teacher's place in writing is captured best in the title of 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 a 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 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 carefully choosing our words when we try to be diplomatic, or when we talk with an interviewer about a prospective job, or perhaps 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 speak freely, in a conversation, and then when we sit down to write we become cautious and guarded. Elbow argues that we can free up our writing and get more energy and "voice" into our writing by writing more the way we speak, and then, editing our initial efforts.

Writing & Editing: An innovation in Elbow's approach is to keep in mind that in writing we are creating; when we edit what we write we are criticizing. Creating and criticizing turn out to be two different enterprises. Elbow draws attention to and distinguishes between our first efforts to get writing done and the follow-up work we do in making the writing presentable to an audience.

Freewriting: Elbow argues that a first basic step to improve writing is freewriting. Freewriting means simply that for a short period of time--10 minutes perhaps--you write without stopping. The idea isn't to produce a polished 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, slowing done or stopping to insure that what we write follows a structure or outline of the argument that we want to impose on the writing. 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 without trying to rethink, rewrite, and revision at the same time we try to get 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 tries to free us up as writers by encouraging the practice 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 . . . ." [Peter Elbow, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process 13 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981]

Plentifulness: One purpose of freewriting is to help you develop the sense that words are plentiful and that we can discard them--gleefully--when it comes time to revise. A sense of the plentifulness of words paves the way to 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 will then be freer to do the kind of revising and editing that needs to be done because we have more words to work with and have less vested interest in the first words we wrote. "If you stop too much and worry and correct and edit, you'll invest too much in these words on the page." (Writing Without Teachers, at 29). The idea is to write freely and plentifully, then you can discard all the rubble that you have produced. Elbow's advice: write in a way that accepts that you are going to produce some "garbage" along the way, amd that you can dispose of the "garbage" and still have some strong writing to work with.

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)

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, 19-20). Elbow cautions that locating centers of gravity in our writing--a kind of summing-up--requires practice.

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). The idea is to 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)

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 and something we can learn to accept if we simply learn to write more; we 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 contends 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, and then look 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 grow organically out of a thought or feeling or perception"; a state of mind different than 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 writing without editing 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 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 by editing--just "throwing away" what doesn't work. (38; see 38-42). "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 argues 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: "You 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, "you should probably begin to suspect that some part of you is trying to undermine your efforts at writing." (80). There are enemies that besiege us when we try to write.

The think-it-out-before-writing approach feeds the anxiety we have about trying to write 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 kinds of negative feelings we can encounter when we try to write. We need to confront these negative feelings--you might might of these feelings as belonging to an Inner Critic--and try to see where these feelings may be trying to take you. Elbow identifies a considerable 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)

feeling swamped (45)

embarrassment (80)

fearful. (83, 122)

On Grammar: 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 the existing orthodoxy about how to write. 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 start writing. There is, in this traditional approach to writing, often as much focus on planning as on writing itself. We are cautioned not to write until after we think through what we want to achieve with writing. [For Elbow's description of the orthodox approach, see pp. 19, 32, 70-72)] Elbow upends this planning-before-writing approach with the idea that we best learn what we have to say and what we mean with the language we have chosen "only at the end" when we can finally see what kind of writing we have produced. (15). When you start writing and "end up somewhere different" than you expected os sp,etjomg we cam ;earm tp expect. "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 Elbow's grow" and "cook" metaphors, see pp. 22-25, 42-47, 73 on the "cook metaphor"; pp. 48-75 on the "cooking" metaphor.] "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, Elbow suggests, in looking back on what we have written that we find the meaning in the way we have found to think about something and to get these thoughts into our writing.

Elbow warns against trying "to break up [writing] 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)

Writing for Learning: When we write to learn, Elbow contends that the goal isn't really "good writing" but rather, "coming to learn, understand, remember and figure out what you don't yet know."

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)

Note: Henriette Anne Klauser, in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain argues that creating and criticizing are radically different kinds of skills because they emanate from different spheres of the brain. In separating creating (making a text) and criticizing (editing a text), you tap into the right brain "for style, rhythm, and voice--for the sense that one human being is talking to another human being" and then to the left brain to edit for grammar, construction, and logic. [Henriette Anne Klauser, Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987)]

Peter Elbow

| Author's Website | Wikipedia

Peter Elbow's Writings

Selected Works of (and by) Peter Elbow

Reflections on the Inability to Write

A Debate/Dialogue: Peter Elbow & David Bartholomae

Newton's Third Law of Writing

Interpreting Interpretations

Academia vs. Individualism


Peter Elbow on Writing

Peter Elbow at Western Massachusetts Writing Project

50 Years of Research on Writing
[Peter Elbow, with Charles Bazerman & George Hillocks]