by Anna-Zoë Herr
“Writing calls on the ability to create words and ideas out of yourself, but it also calls on the ability to criticize them in order to decide which ones to use.” (Peter Elbow, p. 7)
There is no doubt: the quality of the papers and essays we write depends on the depth of thought that lies behind them.
Have you ever had a moment where you confidently bashed out a large paper the night before it was due because you had a sudden flash of insight? Those moments are great when they happen, but you can’t rely on a sudden flash of insight to produce high-quality writing.
Nobody is born being a perfect writer; rather, everyone learns how to write with time and practice. That’s actually the fascinating thing about writing, you aren’t a writer simply because you are talented. Everyone has to practice to become a good writer.
You are secretly a writing machine, but you may not realize that yet. Peter Elbow has discovered that at least two distinct stages are necessary for a written piece to be excellent: creating and controlling.
He noticed that we often neglect our creating process because we are already self-censoring, which in return curbs our creativity.
While the process of controlling our ideas in order to shape them into a coherent paper needs the critical eye of the detached artist, the process of generating ideas needs a faithful listener.
If you are sitting in front of your computer, staring at an empty word document, start like this:
1) Create, create, create. That means brainstorm, entertain impossible ideas, believe in your text and yourself as never before, make notes, write drafts, make mistakes, and even jot down ideas that don’t make any sense. Don’t judge yourself. Believe in your ideas.
2) Control. Now sort through what you have. Be critical with the ideas you find. If you find an idea that’s interesting, think through it and enlarge it. Look at your ideas through the lens of your end-goal. In this stage, you also do the editing and proofreading. You are your own critic.
These stages can be mixed and mingled while you write your paper—and they should. The important thing is that they represent different states of mind when it comes to writing. We need to give time to each.
We spend time as the biggest fan of our ideas in order to develop them fearlessly, then switch to being a critic to identify the best ideas and look for ways to improve them. By separating these two mental processes we save ourselves from disappointment with our own writing and also avoid writer’s block.
Anna-Zoë is a double major in global perspectives and studio art. She has studied in a university in Germany prior to coming to Principia, where she also studied to be a writing tutor.
Elbow, Peter. An Approach to Writing in “Writing with Power”. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.