Writing with Power: Techniques for mastering the process – Peter Elbow (Part 2)


In Part 1, we dealt with Elbow’s views on how to write using the direct method, loop writing and free writing.

How do you edit then?

Well, you have to be ruthless. The most important component of editing besides proofing the manuscript is finding the Unity that holds the manuscript together. When you write you are a writer, but when you edit, you come closer to the reader.

It’s a good idea to be an editor yourself or even collaborate on other people’s writing. What we call crowd sourcing today was not so common back when manuscripts were secret things. Over-editing could be a killer though. The mark of a good writer is that he put his manuscript aside for a while and get some Perspective. Then all the center of gravity that holds the document comes back.


Some editing suggestions were really good and I haven’t found any such suggestions in the books I’ve been reading so far. For instance, proof  your manuscript in the morning is a good idea as this is when you are least likely to have the nauseous feeling that comes over you when you see the same manuscript the hundredth time.

Since this book was written in the 1980s, the writer wasn’t aware of the implication that the Great Share would have on writing. There were the readings even then but now writers don’t seem to care much about the value of their words as long as those words reach some laptop and peter into some receptive mind.

Sharing implies feedback. Feedback is more valuable than you would like it be- put your ego aside and feedback helps you to revise your manuscript. The question is at which stage of your writing do you need feedback and how much feedback do you need?

Although Elbow hasn’t used the word beta reader, all his pointers lead to the kind of audience who will read your little masterpiece or attempt. You don’t wait for an invitation. You go out there and read your work- you make yourself heard- not talking like the persistent spam on facebook- Elbow refers to a more sincere kind of writer. A writer who looks for feedback and persists until his or writing improves because of it.

A writer is a student.  Elbow takes a detour into the dynamics that students and teachers have when it comes to reading and feedback.

Go back to your school days and think about the attitude in which you wrote essays your teacher told you to- were you defiant or cooperative? Did you think that your words didn’t matter as your teacher would slam them anyway, or did you get the encouragement that helped you write better?

This point got me excited as I have taught students and I never thought about who the student was writing for. The teacher read it, so the essay is for the teacher, right?

Well not really– you could read your paper in the classroom as though you are reading to the general public though the audience would really be your classmates or you could be writing an exam and your papers would be judged by an examiner. Who knew what kind of mood they were in?

So if you are a writer looking for a beta reader, you should ask your readers to give you useful feedback, not the smirk that says “Do you think you are a Marquez?” or the encouragement that says “You are the best!”. Real feedback helps you create a first draft and a final draft.

The thing about feedback is that it is tricky terrain. There are two kinds of feedback that a writer needs- Criterion based and Reader response based. Elbow gives you a list of questions I really suggest you look at. An expert reader can dress up what they think, but the real takeaway is from a reader who tells you how your story makes her feel.

The last part of the book is about magic, the real Power of writing. I’m not going to talk about it because maybe I’m superstitious or maybe the life that great writers breathe into their writing is a mystery. You don’t wait for the muse though. You write towards it- you free write, loop write, direct write, edit, elicit feedback, you do all those things.

Perseverance is part of the plan, Elbow tells his students in the end. I like to believe him.

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