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Book Review: Writing With Power by Peter Elbow

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I love Peter Elbow’s ideas about composing and writing. It’s as if he took some of my ideas, stole them right out of my brain, and put them down on paper in Writing With Power. "Freewriting," an exercise he describes in the book, is something I’ve seen at online communities I’m part of. When I recently joined a new group, Newsvine, I asked if there was interest in the activity there. We are now in our 12th week. Yes, the student has become the teacher.

I’ve watched as the exercise has helped budding writers. Elbow sums up the problem nicely: “Sometimes, in fact, when people think too much during the early stages about what they want to end up with, that preoccupation with the final product keeps them from attaining it.”

Natalie Goldberg calls a very similar exercise “Writing Down the Bones” in her book Writing Down the Bones. She says: “The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don’t cross anything out, because that makes space for our inner editor to come in.”

I lead and participate in this writing exercise online and tell those participating there are only three rules: 1) You can only write for those ten minutes, you can’t spend that time rewriting or proofreading. 2) If you write something you need to read the submissions from others. 3) You must write some form of feedback, but it has to be positive.

As I read Peter Elbow explaining “freewriting,” I felt like I was hearing an echo of the rules I have given. Elbow says those reading other’s work must say “thank you” or cite a part particularly enjoyed. Similarly in our exercises, I will often highlight my favorite sentence or paragraph, and others will follow suit.

Whether the idea comes from Elbow, Goldberg, or me, the concept is the same: Focus on writing, not rewriting or revising, and steer clear of criticism. As Elbow puts it:

If you are trying to be inventive and come up with lots of interesting new ideas, it’s usually the worst thing in the world if someone comes along and starts being critical. Thus, the power of brainstorming: no one is allowed to criticize any idea or suggestion that is offered — no matter how stupid, impractical, or useless it seems…

So you are both turning off your own inner critic while also fending off potential critics among those participating.

While both Goldberg and Elbow suggest the same time limit of ten minutes, there is one key difference: the starting point. Elbow says you can start anywhere, on any topic: “You may stay on one topic, you may flip repeatedly from one to another: it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you will produce a good record of your stream of consciousness, but often you can’t keep up.”

In contrast, “Writing Down the Bones” starts with a prompt, which is usually a single word like “flag” or “rain,” but could be a sentence. Those prompts get the writers started, and with their inner editor turned off, something amazing often comes out.

I have found that some of my best short fiction has come out of these exercises. Ideas I never knew I had pop out, sparked either by the prompt, or the knowledge that I have permitted myself to do nothing but write for ten minutes, or perhaps both. As Elbow puts it, “I’m arguing that we can make a better plan if we plan for nonplanning; we can write better if we build in periods where we remove goals from our mind; we can meet the needs of writers better if we sometimes put readers out of mind — especially at early stages.”

So do I think Elbow is right about this process being a good idea? Definitely, and not just because I’m leading a similar exercise.

He does offer a good cautionary note about reading one’s own freewriting:

If reading over your freewriting or giving it someone else gets in the way of future freewriting, as it may well do, then it’s better just to throw it away or stash it somewhere unread. Reading it over may make you too self-conscious or make you feel, “Yeeecchh, what garbage is this,” or, “Oh, dear, there must be something the matter with me to be so obsessed.” This may start you censoring yourself as you engage in more freewriting. Don’t read over your freewriting unless you can do so in a spirit of benign self-welcoming. I used to be fascinated with my freewritings and save them and read them periodically. Now I just throw them away.”

Elsewhere in his book he suggests other ways of approaching writing:

1. The Direct Writing Process. — As he says, “The process is very simple. Just divide your available time in half. The first half is for fast writing without worrying about organization, language, correctness, or precision. The second half is for revising.”

This is a process intended for projects where you do not have a lot of time. To me this seems pretty obvious — of course you need to factor in time for revising if it’s something that needs to be turned in — but I’m sure to some this is a great insight. I’m not sure dividing it in half is a magic formula so much as a good goal; a way to say, okay, it’s time to stop writing

This process is different from “freewriting” in a few key ways: You spend some of the time revising, you pause if you need to, and this is for something on a set topic, such as a memo or a report for work.

2. Quick revising — He sums it up this way: “The point of quick revising is to turn out a clean, clear, professional final draft without taking as much time as you would need for major rethinking and reorganizing. It is a clean-and-polish operation, not a growing-and-transforming one. You specifically refrain from meddling with any deeper problems of organization or reconceptualization.” He says “quick revising” is for when the “results don’t matter too much.”

This one raises some red flags for me because I don’t want anyone to think it’s more important for something to appear done than to actually be done. He raises some examples where it might be fine, such as with a draft of a paper to share with others, or when you plan to work on a more finished product later. Still, he says this will be used most often when people have procrastinated and are short on time.

He goes on to describe two key steps that should be taken. The first is the importance of reading your work aloud. You will hear mistakes you did not see before as you read it. He calls it switching from your “writer-consciousness and into the audience-consciousness.”

Second is the importance of cutting. As a newspaper journalist for more than 10 years I think I spent more time cutting than I did writing. That may be an exaggeration, but it sure felt that way sometimes! In that case, I was cutting due to size. But whether cutting for size or cutting because you are doing quick revising, some of the goals are the same: You are getting rid the weakest of the ideas.

Elbow writes: “Learn to leave out everything that isn’t already good or easily made good. Learn the pleasures of the knife. Learn to retreat, to cut your losses, to be chicken.”

As you can see, I have mixed feelings about this process. If it must be done, his way is as good a way as any, but better to avoid procrastination in the first place.

3. The Dangerous Method: Trying To Write It Right the First Time — It fits the name. The idea is simple: You write so well you don’t need to spend a lot of time, if any, on revising. But he warns, “it is a dangerous method because it puts more pressure on you and depends for its success on everything running smoothly”.

The trick to doing this, if you are one of the few who can pull this off, is to “get your meaning clear in your head before you start writing. (In effect you are stuck with two steps again: figure out your meaning, then write.)” Overall, I think this is a recipe for disaster and he would have been better off not suggesting or including this idea. I know that sounds like sticking ones head in the sand, but there it is.

4. The Open-Ended Writing Process — This is as opposite as possible from the direct writing method. He explains its intent this way: “The open-ended writing process is ideal for the situation where you sense you have something to write but you don’t know quite what.”

He suggests writing about any topic at all and continuing for “at least ten or twenty or thirty minutes, depending on how much material and energy you come up with. You have to write long enough to get tired and get past what’s on the top of your mind. But not so long that you start pausing in the midst of your writing.” The writer should then re-read what he wrote and summarize it in a sentence. Then, he said, “Use that focusing sentence for a new burst of nonstop writing. Again, let the writing go wherever it wants to go. Invite yourself gradually or suddenly to lose sight of whatever you start with.” After the process is repeated, eventually something will emerge, which you will then begin to revise or rework.

This approach sounds a bit too new-agey and spiritual for me. I’ve not tried this, so maybe it’s unfair to question it, but I just can’t endorse this one.

5. Lastly, the Loop Writing Process — This process is sort of a compromise, a middle ground of sorts, in which the writer tries to get the best of both worlds — creativity and control.

This process takes longer than the direct writing method but not nearly as long as the open-ending writing process. He calls it the loop because “it takes you on an elliptical orbiting voyage. For the first half, the voyage out, you do pieces of almost-freewriting during which you allow yourself to curve out into space — allow yourself, that is, to ignore or even forget exactly where your topic is. For the second half, the voyage home, you bend your efforts back into the gravitational field of your original topic as you select, organize, and revise parts of what you produced during the voyage out"

This process has 13 procedures but I’m not going to explain them all. They are all things you may want to consider during the writing process, from writing down your first thoughts and considering your prejudices to varying the time you are writing about or varying the audience.

During the writing you should try to lose sight, temporarily, of your topic. One of the best times to use this approach is when you are writing about a topic that bores you silly. After you follow one of the procedures, you need to do the hard part, namely: Remember the original assignment and start revising what you ended up with to make it fit. He puts it this way:

"For in the voyage home, obviously enough, you are engaged in the process of revising. You have used your creative mentality to generate lots of examples and ideas and the makings of ideas, and now you need to use your critical mentality to shape a coherent draft out of this raw writing."

This process, he admits, can leave the writer with quite a mess and much of it will have to be destroyed. Will it always work? No. Is it worth a try? Definitely.

I have never tried this approach, at least not under this name, but I bet he is right that it would work at least some of the time. Next time I get stuck, I am going to give it a try.

I'd encourage you to try most of these processes. Elbow is indeed wise in imparting these excellent suggestions. This book contains some of the best writing advice I have read in years.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://aghostwriter.org/ Robert

    In the early stages of trying to keep my inner editor at bay during the initial draft, I shifted my email composition to first thing in the morning. It gets me in the habit of writing freely, and that habit carries over to my writing when I finally buckle down to work.

  • Scott Butki

    excellent solution. I have found – and i talk about it here – that some of the best times to write are early in the morning or late at nite. it’s as if the inner editor goes to sleep.