I am a medievalist in the process of completing a PhD (involving medieval medicine). I travel as much as possible at home (UK) and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences!
Published January 23rd 2013
Simple techniques to improve writing skills
In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow declares that "everyone in the world wants to write." However, despite this universal yearning, the majority of aspiring writers, including the author himself, sometimes experience great difficulty with the writing process. Elbow promotes two methods to eliminate troublesome writer's block: free-writing and writing in groups without the instruction and critique of a teacher.
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The author's proposals are clear and simple enough: practice daily free-writing in 10 minute increments, leave editing for the final step in the process, and create writing groups where participants "experience and perceive" each other's writing. The core of the book concerns free-writing, which is writing done very quickly, without stopping, and without editing. The purpose of the technique is to get words on the page and to reduce the anxiety of creating "perfect" writing. The author contends that the whole process of teaching people to write relies on the faulty assumption that good writing requires significant planning before any word can be written.
Another message in the book is contained in the appendix essay "The Doubting Game and the Believing Game-An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise," which is a theoretical presentation of Elbow's ideas intended for academic authorities. As evidenced by this essay and the author's introductory comments of "I am looking for people to engage me at the theoretical level," the author desires to challenge traditional methods and to gain the notice of intellectuals in the field.
This brings me to the one downside of the book - it is heavily reliant on personal history and experience. Autobiographical digressions occur at the introduction, appendix, and throughout the book by way of diary entries, personal notes, and stories. I found the many digressions into the author's personal history a bit excessive. This is not mentioned to fault the author's techniques promoted in the book, but rather his choice of delivering the message through constant reference to his own life history.
The author addresses, in a very practical manner, that writing can be a difficult and excruciating process for many people. He dispels the notion that only a select few have the mysterious gift of writing well and thereby offers hope and encouragement to a population struggling to write dissertations, essays, or even works for personal enjoyment. The strength of the book is its innovative and simple alternatives to the common advice of writing self-help books. The oft-repeated phrase "just write and keep writing" sums up the whole point and purpose of the book.
So, do the author's main claims - to unblock blocked writers, to silence the internal editor, and to release a hidden reserve of words and ideas - actually prove true in experience? Every writer will have a different reaction, but the book is a useful starting point. Despite some flaws in style and the many autobiographical detours, this book is recommended for its practical, simple, and effective methods for struggling writers.