Lessons In Writing from Peter Elbow

Before I get started on this topic, here’s a little video I made as part of an assignment in a course last winter:

It’s a silly little thing that I made just because I didn’t want to face doing a written summary, which in the end ended up being more fun and even got me the attention of Dr. Elbow himself.

The gist of the argument, taken from his book of essays Everyone Can Write, is basically that writing should be given more importance in the undergraduate classroom–not only in English classrooms but in all fields. Everyone will have to communicate by writing at one point or another: even businessmen, engineers, psychologists and scientists.

I fell in love with Peter Elbow’s theories as soon as I read one essay. Writing has always been somewhat of a struggle for me until recently, and in his essays I found hopefulness and joy.

  • It is possible for anyone to produce a lot of writing with pleasure and satisfaction and without too much struggle.
  • It is possible for anyone to figure out what he or she really means and wants to say, and finally get it clear on paper.
  • It is possible for anyone to write things that others will want to read. When people manage to say what they really mean and to get themselves into their writing, readers tend to have the experience of making contact with the writer–an experience that most people seek. (xiv)

Doesn’t that sound awesome? It certainly does to me. This feeling that your writing doesn’t matter beyond your grade is an impediment to interest in writing, I think. However, ever since I started blogging more seriously, I find increasing joy and satisfaction in seeing my words read, commented on and appreciated.

In many different ways, Peter Elbow teaches us that we all have something to say that’s worth reading. There will always be someone willing to read our stuff if we’re courageous enough to show it.

He also tells us that it’s okay to keep some writing to yourself–freewriting, private journaling. According to him, this kind of writing is essential to develop good writing muscles, just like a gymnast repeats the same routines or movements hundreds and hundreds of times before finally showing them in competition.

He gives four benefits of freewriting:

  1. “It gets you going, gets you writing, makes it much easier to begin” (86). It’s a great way to start writing if your brain is scattered, if you don’t know what to write about or if you feel blocked.
  2. “Freewriting doesn’t just get words on paper, it improves thinking” (87). Writing non-stop makes you write about your thinking; when you run out of ideas, you start writing things like: “I don’t know what to write” or “this is crap, it doesn’t make sense”. You start paying attention to your thought processes.
  3. “Freewriting puts life into our writing: voice, energy, presence” (87). Who wouldn’t want more energy and presence in their writing? Freewriting unveils your voice by freeing your unconscious from your ego.
  4. “It can help us experience ourselves as writers” (88). The more you write, the more you consider yourself a writer. You don’t need to write professionally to be a writer; a lot of us bloggers have other jobs that don’t necessarily involve writing.

I haven’t done much freewriting myself but I also don’t suffer much from blocks these days. I don’t need help to get started, I just need to sit my butt down and start working on predetermined topics. But I know that if I started freewriting regularly, I might develop ideas for things to write about besides my paid article writing and my blogs.

This is just a little bit of Peter Elbow’s thoughts about writing; if you like it, I might turn this into a series as I read more of his books and essays.

Do you use freewriting? How does it help you work?



Filed under Thoughts, Writing

6 responses to “Lessons In Writing from Peter Elbow

  1. I use “free writing” all the time. I write for free. ba-boom, tshhhhh!

    But seriously … I write in my journal, jot down ideas using Evernote and begin articles that may never get finished.

    Writing is a struggle for me, but a struggle worth, er, struggling with :-)

    • Anabelle

      Yes it is, but the great thing is, Elbow helps us make it less of a struggle. There are a ton of writing theorists out there but I find Elbow is the most positive of them all. He loves to talk about the joy of writing, and if you find a bit of bio on him, you’ll see that he himself suffered from great struggles and hate of writing as a graduate student.

      I just find his way of using theory and personal experience empowering.

      • Thanks for retweeting this. A good reminder that formulating ideas, making notes and just putting one’s thoughts out there is a good thing.

        Blogs are a wonderful democracy that allows us to connect with others who are interested in the same topics.

        Writing is the core, but beyond the craft is the confidence to just tell our story, even if we have not perfected the craft to “perfect” standards.

        Editors are wonderful, but many writers can’t afford, or have not reached the point where publishers are willing to invest in them. Blogs have enabled so many wonderful stories to be shared.

        I could ramble, but anyway I spend most of my time reading alternative blogs and news sources, as do many others, so I think it’s wise that corporate media should wise up … if it were not for the fact that they are trying to maintain the views of an increasingly discredited corporate agenda.


  2. Pingback: Writing Blocks: Myth or Reality? « Anabelle's Blog

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