Book Review and Summary of Everyone Can Write by Peter Elbow
Before I Begin
Peter Elbow's book is wonderful and very helpful to anyone going into teaching, or anyone who just wants to improve their writing. This book shows how Elbow defines voice and how to find that voice through writing. This is both my summary of Everyone Can Write and Review of Everyone Can Write. I hope you enjoy and take something away from it.
Elbow's Everyone Can Writeis a very helpful book. Elbow writes very clearly, yet intelligently. Even if he has a somewhat complex thought, he breaks it down and explains it so anyone who is reading this book, be they a simple college student or a sophisticated college professor, will have no problem digesting it. He discusses his life and gives reasons why he is a credible source for this information he is presenting. His ideas and tips are practical and useful to everyone who wants to further their own or others' writing. Elbow's book is an argument for a utopian writing class. He is not arguing against any type of teaching, and, in fact, embraces other teaching styles. He states that “I'm partisan for one side; yet I'm also affirming all sides equally”(xvii). Elbow discusses the processes he uses to get students to write better and more frequently. The book is a series of helpful essays and “fragments”, as he calls them, which come at the end of every chapter that will teach you how everyone really can write.
The book is separated into six different segments with several “chapters” or essays in each. The sections contain related information and the book flows pretty easily. The introduction lays out Elbow's reasons for wanting to argue for this particular teaching style. Part one is a look at his personal story and he goes into some practical teaching styles he uses and has derived from his own experiences. Part two is about ignoring your audience and free writing. Part three primarily discusses voice, speech, and writing. Part four examines academic writing and “the war between reading and writing”. Part five goes into practical teaching and how to deal with giving assignments and grades. Finally part six is about grades and assessing students.
The Book Itself - Summary
In the introduction and first section of the book Elbow points out that he is simply stating his own ideas and thoughts on the issue of writing theory. He did not write this book to be right and he did not write it to disprove anyone else. Elbow is simply “Fighting For-Not Against”(xviii). He then goes on to explain his complicity at school and his shortcomings at Harvard and Oxford. His writing was becoming unclear or non-existent to his writing tutors. Elbow deduces that his writing was unclear because he was “playing a game” with the teachers. Elbow was testing them by hiding his “brilliance” in unclear writing (11). He takes this idea and goes on to show the importance of being resistant as well as compliant with teachers. He understands that it is difficult to be both compliant and resistant but Elbow believes that students do “very well if they manage to careen back and forth a bit between complying and resisting -- and not stay stuck in one mode” (22). The second essay in the first section deals with writing in terms of audience and response. Elbow has created a chart that shows the different types of audiences (audience with authority, audience of peers, audience of allies, and audience of self alone) and different types of responses (sharing, but no response; response, but no criticism or evaluation; and criticism or evaluation.). Elbow recognizes that some of the responses are hard to maintain, but can be done with a little critical thinking or tweaking. Elbow suggests several ideas for giving little or no criticism. However, he does encourage maintaining normal routines, such as clapping or writing thank you at the end of a paper. He talks about his own practice of letting students free write throughout the school year, creating a lot of personal writing. This is under the audience group of “self”. He also has students do a lot of non-evaluative shared writing. He states that this helps students immediately recognize possible errors or muddiness in their papers. He shows how he makes students practice in every different type of writing for audiences and the different types of responses. The third essay goes on to show the uses of a duality style of thinking or “binary thinking”. He shows the importance of thinking through a problem that is presented as an “either or” situation. Elbow feels that one should “affirm both sides of the dichotomy as equally true or necessary or important” (51). He points out that this problem comes into the teaching world as the opposites of “positively affirming” and “critically judging” (55). Elbow goes on to discuss several more cases of binary thinking, and how his style of thinking can lead to a deeper understanding and usefulness of both sides of a problem. This first section of this book drives the ideas and practices discussed throughout the rest of the book.
In parts two and three of the book, Elbow discusses writing for oneself and ignoring an audience. To begin with Elbow first defines the traits of “good” free writing which are:
- not showing your words to anyone (unless you later change your mind)
- not having to stay on one topic—freely digressing
- not thinking about spelling, grammar, and mechanics
- not worrying about how good the writing is-- even whether it makes sense or is understandable (even to oneself) (85).
He gives a few examples of free writing that he has done and how to look for and discover voice in free writing. Elbow goes into why free writing is important to discover what you really feel because it is much safer than talking (91). In his essay on ignoring audience, Elbow looks at why some students struggle with writing for an audience. Elbow bluntly puts it “Damn it, put all your attention on what you are saying...and forget about us and how we are reacting.” (97). In the next essay Elbow discusses the different reasons and styles of free writing. Part three goes more into speech and voice in writing. In the first essay he goes on about different theoretical ideas of writing being more ephemeral than speech, speech being more ephemeral than writing, and finally writing being speech like and explores these ideas. He is discussing all of this because he wants to “celebrate the flexibility of writing as a medium” (166). In the next few short essays, Elbow explores voice in literature, writing, and in silence.
Moving into section four, Elbow begins his discussion on academic discourse, which he defines as “discourse academics use when they publish for other academics.” (235). He talks about how ideas of academic writing being for, and by other academics are a problem. There is not a way to teach a history major to write like a historian or to teach a biology major to write like a biologist. It is learned from studying the field and it is hard to define what exactly the style of academic discourse is. In the next essay he talks about private writing and how it benefits the writer. He argues the possibilities that private writing isn’t really private. He argues this by saying all writings have an audience, even if that audience is the self. Elbow then continues on to discuss the “war” between reading and writing. He talks about how reading is seen as something that comes before writing, and that it is better to write after reading to reflect. Elbow argues that it is possible to expand and open your thoughts, by writing before reading, and you could come out with a better understanding of how you feel. Finally Elbow discusses the idea of literary collages. They are literally what they sound like. Piecing together cut up works to make some sort of sense of order or flow. This allows students to “skip organization and just put pieces in some intuitive order.”(304). He argues that this is beneficial; however, it does cut out the hardest parts of creating essays.
The final two sections of the book are very practical and helpful segments entitled “Teaching” and “Evaluation and Grading”. The first section begins by discussing “mother tongue” or someone’s personal dialect or style. He makes sure to point that this language isn't wrong; it just isn't Standard Written English (SWE). He argues for writing in both languages. To write both in the “mother tongue” and to write in SWE he suggests letting students freely write in their dialect. In the copy-editing process students should seek help and begin to understand both their mother tongue and SWE. In his next essay he explains the importance of high and low stakes writing. Low stakes allow students to think, learn, and understand the course material (351). High stakes writing is the proof that the students fully understand what they were working toward in the course. He then gives his opinions on responding to writing and rather than pointing at what students to wrong, help them learn what they could improve upon or continue to do well in future writing. In the final section of his book he discusses the most practical and utopian of his ideas, which are assessments and grades. He discusses his reasons for disliking conventional grades and he explains in detail his “contract grading” and even gives an example of it.
Ups and Downs of the Book
This book had some very strong points to make for Elbow's style of teaching writing, and not against anyone else. The first and final two sections were the most intriguing and helpful. They discuss practical and applicable ideas that any teacher could use in a class that they have set up. You could take one or several of his ideas on writing for certain audiences with certain types of feedback given, or his free writing ideas and apply them to a classroom full of writers and get some sort of result.
However, some of Elbow's ideas could fall a little short. He stresses that good writers produce lots of writing. This would seem to be a true statement, that if writers produce more writing and get more experienced with it, they will become better over-all writers. However, if a teacher begins to quantify the writing students must do, and not allow them to stray from what they are told to do, they could end up doing poorly in a class or not produce “good” writing, which is the ultimate goal. Elbow does stress that students need to be able to resist as well as comply, but nothing kills someone’s motivation to do something freely than to require certain amounts of it to be done by a certain time.
Overall, this is a wonderful book with many great practical ideas. One could definitely create lesson plans or take teaching strategies from this work and apply it to teaching elementary writing all the way to college level writing. Elbow is a great author with many great ideas and has proven that through the publication of his many books. He writes in a way that is understandable to nearly anyone. His writing is refreshing from standard academic theory books. His book shows his experience in the field and how he feels students learn best. He shows all of this through examples, which is extremely helpful for readers. This is a practical book for any future teacher and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to become a teacher or even anyone who simply wants to write.
Elbow, Peter.Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Elbow has written many books includingWriting without TeachersandWriting With Power. I would highly recommend his book to anyone looking to improve their writing or looking for just more ideas to help them along in their already polished writing.
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