Last week, I read Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.
The book contains two distinct parts – so distinct in fact, that I’m not persuaded they belong in the same book, but there we go. First, Elbow gives us his theory for how to write more (and ultimately better) through what he calls “freewriting”; then he sets out a model for teacherless writing classes.
The main point of this section is that many people don’t write at all, or don’t write enough, because they get too hung up on writing well. They are frightened to start and if they do start, they spend too long polishing as they go. The result is very little work, and all of it filtered through the unreliable editor of the writer’s instant reactions.
Elbow suggests that writers (and by writers, he is talking about anyone who writes for whatever purpose; his focus is actually business- and essay-writing, rather than fiction) should let the words just flow, keep writing even if they have nothing to write except “I don’t know what to write”. He points out that editing should come much later, and that by starting at all, we often reach a much more honest and smooth voice than if we had tried to plan everything before putting pen to paper.
It fits nicely with how I write as a fiction writer. I find that the writing I do when I just start is often the smoothest, whereas when I make a detailed plan there are jagged edges as I try to make what is coming out of my head fit into it. my Friday Fiction stories are usually like that – I see the picture and it prompts a first line in my head, I start writing that and see where it takes me. I genuinely do find that characters and scenes are sufficiently developed in my head that I only have to transcribe what I witness to have at least the bare bones of a story.
Even in a pre-planned piece, the nicest bits are often the tangents, and in editing Phoenix Fire, I’m definitely redefining many of my ideas about what the story is really about, based on the ways the writing developed from the original plan.
There’s always editing to do afterwards, of course, but Elbow and I agree that this should be a different stage.
Teacherless Writing Classes
His theory here is that a teacher can only tell you one person’s reaction to your writing and presents his opinions as indisputable facts, thereby doing you a disservice twice over. Whereas in his “teacherless writing classes” (most people would call this a “Writing Group”, I’m a member of two in person and two online, none of which follows the Elbow method), you get feedback from a variety of readers. Moreover, he suggests that such feedback be strictly limited to facts (more on that momentarily), presented as mere individual opinions, thereby giving them more value but less power.
How does this work?
Well, a teacher has a degree of authority. If a teacher tells us something is good or bad, we tend to believe them, although with writing, like any art form, so much is subjective that this teacher’s opinion is just that. By contrast, if we receive the opinions of a dozen other writers, we get a more diverse spread and a better idea of how the wider readership might react. So far, I agree.
But in addition, he says, this wider readership should not attempt to give value judgements or to suggest changes. It is the writer’s job, and his alone, to rewrite the piece. The readers should only present facts about the way they perceived a piece of writing. So, for example “This paragraph felt boring to me” rather than “You used too many adverbs here” or even “This paragraph felt boring to me, I suggest you look at removing some of the adverbs.” Elbow is of the opinions that we cannot, as readers, know why a piece effected us in a particular way and therefore shouldn’t muddy the waters by trying to guess.
To an extent, he’s right. We can’t know for certain why a piece bored us, but as a recipient of feedback, I ALWAYS appreciate the reader’s attempt to share not just his experience but what he thinks caused that experience. Of course, it must always be the writer’s prerogative to disagree with or ignore the feedback he receives, but I still think it’s valuable to get the most specific and constructive feedback possible.
If I am having a piece reviewed, it’s the third kind of feedback above that I find most useful. It gives me a sense of how my words affected the reader (felt boring) AND why they think that was (too many adverbs). If just one reader out of 12 says this, I might be inclined to think that individual was just having a bad day, has a bugbear about adverbs or just isn’t my target readership, but if more than a couple of others agree, I’m going to take it seriously, and consider whether the adverbs, AND anything else about that paragraph, could be improved.
I’d love to hear whether anyone has tried Elbow’s methods, and what you think about feedback in general. And, if I know you in person and you want to borrow the book, just let me know.