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Peter Elbow on Writing

Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachiusetts, Amherst, is the author of many books about the process of writing, including Writing Without Teachers.


Keeping a journal that records one's personal writing experiences - successes and failures- may be very insightful.


Often the best writing comes from chaos. Students should give themselves permission to ramble on in their early drafts in order to discover what they wish to say.


Students should free write to generate ideas first.

Then they should become critical, logical, or negative as they review what they have written, not hesitating to shape or discard material.


Rather than waiting for a big bolt of creative lightening, students should try writing down ideas in short intervals, fifteen minutes or so, and do this frequently before attempting a draft.


Not a perfect stream of consciousness. It is private writing and may or may not be lucid and organized. Anything goes. Freewriting is writing without pauses.

It invites surprise. Students often discover things they didn't know they thought or felt. The deepest insights often come after ten or fifteen minutes when writers initially feel they have run out of things to say. Writers should generate a lot of ideas to allow them to keep only the best ones for the finished draft.


Writers should have a range of audiences, including listeners who understand and are sympathetic with their struggle. Writers should not be confined to "authority readers" or critics (teachers). Peer readers bring pleasure into writing. Writing can be shared as a gift and does not always require a response. Most "real world" writing solicits no feedback and often gets none. Ally readers help separate the writing from the writer. There may be response to questions such as "What do you hear me saying?" or "What do you think?" but no evaluations are necessary. Writers may feel comfortable to take risks that may ultimately improve their writing


Writers should use their own voices as much as possible, for their own voices have power, control, and courage. When students are confined to writing in the third person - in writing that must not be "polluted by a subjective voice" or "as if it were God talking"- they may find this requirement too constraining. Students should first write in their natural voices and then revise for formality. PROOFREADING: This should be the last concern of writers. Because mistakes distract and give negative points of view of writers regardless of their level of thinking, writers should be diligent in cleaning up the mistakes in formal writing. They should use whatever resources are available, including Spell Check or Grammar Check that may be available in their word-processing programs.

Last revision: April 23, 2009