This is the second part of a two-part article
Earlier I wrote an essay focusing on exercises, procedures and processes suggested by Peter Elbow, most of which I endorsed. Today, with this piece, I am focusing on other wisdom that he has provided. As with part one, which focused on Dillard, I am going to focus on ideas and advice which match my own beliefs and experiences as a writer. Both Elbow and Annie Dillard are widely recognized and revered for their writings and for their books about writing. These articles of mine have a shared intent: To help others with their composition and writing processes.
What I like most about Peter Elbow’s advice is that it emphasizes the writer doing the composing and writing and pushing away, until later, contemplation about the audience possible critics and how it will be received. Elbow is quick to admit that following this advice can lead to bad writing.
That brings to mind an important distinction: Just because you write something does not mind you need to share it or try to get it published. At some future time I will write a piece intended to help you determine how you can tell if something you wrote is good or bad.
Not everyone needs to change their current composing and writing process. Some lucky people are able to write on any topic with no problems. To those people Elbow writes: “If your writing works well following an approach much different from what I advise, don’t change. But if your approach is not working well for you, why continue with it just because it is habitual or comfortable? Why not try my advice? I’d argue that it was rational. If you want your writing to go better, you may have to learn a process that drives you crazy at first.”
Writing Advice From Peter Elbow, With Some Assistance From Me
1. Don’t write defensively – Don’t let fear of a bad reaction or negative comments get in the way of good writing. Peter Elbow notes that this is particularly a problem resulting from teachers who, unintentionally, discourage writers. He writes,
We are often told to drive defensively, assume that there’s a driver you don’t notice who is careless or drunk and may kill you. Good advice for driving, but not for writing. Too many students write as though every sentence they write might be criticized for a fault they didn’t notice. Defensive writing means not risking: not risking complicated thoughts or language, not risking half-understood ideas, not risking language that has the resonance that comes from being close to the bone.
2. Instead, Write With Power – In an author’s note Elbow explains what he means by the title of this book:
Writing with power means getting power over words and readers; writing clearly and correctly; writing what is true or real or interesting; and writing persuasively or making some kind of contact with your readers so that they can actually experience your meaning or vision.
But writing with power also means getting power over yourself and over the writing process; knowing what you are doing as you write; being in charge; having control; not feeling stuck or helpless or intimidated. I am particularly interested in this second kind of power in writing and I have found that without it you seldom achieve the first kind.
3. Block the critics, be they your inner editor or other people – Elbow writes: “Put your effort into experiencing the tree you want to describe, not on thinking about what words to use. Don’t put your attention on quality or critics. Just write.”
4. Requesting little or no feedback when sharing aloud is healthy and fine – I just tried this last night, reading two pieces aloud at an open mic nite and both times I found areas in my writing that could have been better. Elbow writes,
"When we read our work to others, we learn about our writing with enormous efficiency simply by feeling the shapes of our words, and sentences in our mouths and hearing them in our ears. (Many people don’t hear their sentences as they construct them on paper.) And we don’t just hear our words better; we internalize the sense of ourselves as another reader. We learn to hear with others ears. This helps our words move on to the next stage. And yet all this goes on so quickly and easily."
5. Mistakes matter, no matter how dumb or small –To paraphrase the famous saying, “It’s the typos, stupid.” This, out of all of these suggestions, is the one I’m probably most guilty of violating. I have made more than my share of mistakes and typos not realizing or caring, at the time, that some readers were losing respect for me as a result. Elbow writes:
“Even if you are writing informally for friends you must take care to get rid of these mistakes. Your friends may say, 'Oh, who cares about trivial details of correctness,' but in fact most people are prejudiced, even if unconsciously, against writing flawed in this way. They are more apt to patronize your writing or take it less seriously or hold back from experiencing what you are saying if there are mistakes in the mechanics.”
6. Don’t expect instant perfection – We would all love for what we write to be the best possible product on our first attempt but we need to be realistic. Elbow writes,
When you try to write something right the first time, don’t try to get it absolutely right. You can get the job done quicker and also avoid preciousness and overwriting if you give yourself some leeway about how to begin and about wording and phrasing throughout. That is, don’t try to write your opening sentence or paragraph unless it comes to you automatically just right. You can waste an enormous amount of time trying to find a good opening, and it will probably need to be changed by the time you are done….. You’ll write more quickly and naturally if you are not always struggling for the exact word or phrase. When you finish you will be able to polish your piece very quickly by just going back through it once and crossing out the wrong words and occasionally writing in a new one. Your final language will be more lively and direct and you will have saved time.
7.When possible try to keep your creating and criticizing skills separated – Elbow writes,
Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing. In other words, writing calls on the ability to create words and ideas out of yourself, but it also calls on the ability to criticize them in order to decide which ones to use. It is true that these opposite mental processes can go on at the same time. When they do, you find yourself writing words that that are at once inventive and rich, yet also shrewd, tough-minded, and well-ordered. But such magical sessions are rare. Most of the time it helps to separate the creating and the criticizing processes so that you can generate as many words and ideas as possible without worrying whether they are good; then turn around and adopt a critical frame of mind and thoroughly revise what you have written – taking what’s good and discarding what isn’t and shaping what’s left into something strong. You’ll discover that the two mentalities needed for these two processes – an inventive fecundity and a tough critical-mindedness – flower most when they get a chance to operate separately.
8. Learn revision skills by working on other people’s writings – the hard part of the composing process is not knowing how and when to revise but rather doing it to your own copy, Elbow said. “Surgeons don’t learn cutting skills by turning the knife on themselves. It feels like cutting your own flesh to take your writing apart, rearrange it, and throw away large chunks,” he writes. Elbow suggests an interesting approach:
Use the knife on other people’s writing and you will learn quicker not only the outward techniques of good revising, but also the essential inner reaction that will lead you to those techniques: an intolerance for something that doesn’t work and a willingness to make changes even if it means discarding wonderful stuff. Once you get comfortable wielding the knife and seeing blood on the floor, it turns out to be easier to wield it on yourself.
9. Avoid revising your writings when you are being hard on yourself – The word Elbow uses is actually stronger – he says “never do major revising when nauseated by your own writing.” At first this seems so obvious as to be laughable.
But when I read the beginning of that chapter again I found myself nodding at this description, supposing we have all had this experience at least once: “Revising is when it may hit you. Revulsion. The feeling that all this stuff you have written is stupid, ugly, worthless – and cannot be fixed. Disgust.” When that happens you need to step away from your writing for a while, he writes.
I hope you find this writing advice, and these suggestions, helpful.