Being a Writer

Being a Writer, by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, is a gold mine of activities and assignments for exploring variations on your writing process.

One activity introduces “Sondra Perl’s Composing Guidelines” (available online in an excerpt from an earlier version of Being a Writer). Perl’s guidelines, guide you to explore your thoughts by focusing on a number of aspects one at a time. What draws my attention right now? What do I know about this topic? What makes this topic interesting to me? What’s missing? Moving back and forth from one focus to another helps you to explore your topic both broadly and deeply.

Another activity is “The Loop Process.” First you freewrite for ten minutes, letting your thoughts go wherever they will. Then you revise what you’ve written, shaping it and focusing it toward your topic and audience. Then you loop again and again, repeatedly diverging and converging. The authors offer several strategies for diverging during freewriting:

  • Simply write whatever comes to mind, your first thoughts.
  • Quickly list the moments or situations that somehow seem connected to the topic, or the stories or sequences of events that come to mind, or the people who seem central to the topic. Then choose one and write about it for five or ten minutes.
  • Write a dialogue about the topic.
  • Write as if you are another author, or as if you are writing to a different audience, or as if you are writing at another time and place.
  • Write lies about the topic, or errors (statements that are almost right — tempting, but wrong), or "sayings" (real or invented) about the topic.

Elbow and Belanoff recommend keeping a process journal. After a writing session, journal about what you are experiencing and learning in your writing process. What happened as you wrote? What worked well? What was difficult? What led to the difficulty? How did you feel as you were writing? Process writing can be especially helpful, the authors say, “if you do it after two sessions — especially two sessions on the same piece — and compare what happened.”

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Being a Writer. There is plenty more, including ideas about freewriting, clustering, writing collaboratively, giving and receiving feedback, and the open-ended writing process. And that’s just the first section, on “Creativity and the Writing Process.” Other sections cover revising, researching, interviewing, and persuading and arguing.

My favorite quote from the book (hidden in a writing exercise on page 47): “The two main skills in writing are making a mess and cleaning up the mess.”

Being a Writer and Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace are my two favorite books about writing. While Style focuses on structure and content, Being a Writer focuses on the writing process. The techniques I learned from each book gave me not only the skill to write, but also the confidence to write.

comments powered by Disqus