Four Modes of Writing
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Audience and Response: A Progression Through Four Modes of Writing Peter Elbow This progression of audience-response relationships serves as a helpful framework for planning a range of writing assignments in any course. 1. Private writing. 2. Writing for sharing--but not for any responses. 3. Writing for feedback--but not for any criticism or advice. 4. Writing for a full range of reader responses, including criticism. 1. Private writing. To ask for this is to invite the greatest degree of safety--and it is the mode in which we learn to have conversations with ourselves. Examples: freewriting; journal writing; writing in class about an issue under discussion (this can come at the beginning, middle or end); writing about one’s own writing process. 2. Writing for sharing—but no response. This involves asking students to write something and then read it outloud to a partner, small group, or the whole class but not get any response or feedback at all. This adds the risk of going public, but it produces powerful learning from hearing one’s own words in one’s own mouth in the presence of readers. Nevertheless there is still considerable safety because there is no response. This activity heightens the student’s ear and brings to life the social dimension of writing--often neglected in school writing but the foundation of all language use. Writing can be shared silently on paper too, and students benefit from knowing they’ve had an audience--but they don’t get the powerful learning that comes from the use of the mouth and ear. Examples. Getting students to read exploratory writing or drafts--just to “see how they sound;” using the first ten minutes of class for students to read in pairs or small groups a piece they wrote for homework about the reading or lecture material that they are about to discuss or hear about in a lecture; (this improves the discussion and enhances learning from a lecture;) having a celebratory reading of finished work--for pleasure and learning. 3. Writing for feedback--but not for criticism or advice. At this third stage we seek a rich array of practical responses that will help students understand how their words are understood by readers, but there is still no attempt at evaluation or explicit criticism. This yields more risk, more feedback, more learning. But because there is no criticism or advice, students experience it as rewarding to write, share, and listen nondefensively to responses from readers. To use this third mode of responding obviously requires much more time (teacher time for responding; or class time for peer feedback). And most students need careful coaching to learn to avoid ill-considered criticism of each other. Many students and teachers cannot respond without criticizing. For examples of this mode, see the final note below, “Questions to help readers give nonevaluative feedback.”
4. Writing for full response. When students have become warmed up, more confident, and more skilled, I move to the fourth audience relationship to give students the full range of responses--including criticism and advice. Students don’t usually give feedback well until they have gotten good at sharing and giving noncritical feedback. In this fourth category it helps to distinguish between reader-based feedback (stories of what happens in readers’ minds as they read) and criterion-based feedback (more impersonal feedback about how the writing measures up to criteria--such as ‘organization’, ‘clarity of thinking’, or ‘spelling’.) This progression through four modes helps me think and plan my teaching. I introduce the modes in order because they move from maximum safety to maximum risk. But I also try to keep all four modes going throughout the semester since the earlier ones are so fruitful. Indeed, they represent a hierarchy of priorities in reverse order: writing is more important than sharing, sharing is more important than getting responses, and getting responses is more important than getting criticism and advice. The first two stages are easiest for students and they take the least teacher time and effort--yet they teach the most. They are, as it were, all learning and no teaching. Most teachers think of writing only in the fourth audience-response mode: whenever they ask students to write, they assume that the writing must be handed in, evaluated, criticized, and graded. This ingrained habitual practice is the biggest obstacle to effective teaching. For this reason, I stress the first three activities most. We need the most practice in learning these more lively, surprising, and enjoyable modes. Questions to help readers give noncritical or nonevaluative feedback:
Pointing. Which words, phrases, or sections do you notice most? Sayback. What do you hear the piece saying? What thoughts and feelings do you hear almost stated? implied? Hovering? What are some local centers of gravity or focuses of energy (not necessarily main points)? What do you want to hear more about? What kind of voice do you hear in the writing (e.g., confident? timid? friendly?) Who do you hear the piece talking to? What are your thoughts about the topic? Believing feedback: accept the writer’s point of view and find further support or evidence for it; be an ally or co-author; if you can’t do this, pretend to do it and see what you see. Skeleton or outlining feedback: what do you see as the main idea and what do you see as supporting or subsidiary ideas and details. This feedback helps the writer see her piece with more perspective--especially the structure of it. It also helps the writer think of more ideas. Give “movies of your mind” as you were reading: tell the story of the actual thoughts, feelings, and reactions that went on in your mind as you were reading. This is easiest if you periodically interrupt your reading and tell or write what has been going on in your mind. (For noncritical feedback, you can leave out any negative reactions.)
For more on responding to texts, see Sharing and Responding--a pamphlet that is part of my textbook, Being a Writer (McGraw Hill), and also the “Feedback” section of my Writing With Power (Oxford).