Tag Archives: freewriting

Creating and controlling

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.


Free-Question Follow Up Lesson

A few weeks ago Heidi Snow posted a blog about free-questioning.  I decided to try this tip in my classroom using the book we’re reading right now called Sidewalk.  At first the students had a difficult time with asking questions and not giving or getting answers.  However, once we got in the groove of asking questions, they filled three chalkboards full of questions!

After several weeks, I decided to have the students organize these questions.  I split the students into two groups and gave them the exact same list of questions, each question on its own strip of paper.  Then I had the students, within their groups, divide and organize the questions into groups of similar questions.  I had the students use post-its to label their groups of questions.  I paralleled this activity with the beginning of writing a paper.  This is a great way to figure out what questions need answers or need more information.

When the groups were finished organizing their questions, I had them visit each other’s tables to see the results.  We had a thoughtful and insightful discussion about the different ways we approach the organization of a paper.  The students also shared that this activity was difficult because some of the questions that the class generated were not clear to them now.  I enjoyed listening to their reflective ideas about this process and the importance of being clear while writing, whether they’re writing questions, sentences, or papers.

What’s it all about, Alfie?

I like giving my students as open-ended writing assignments as I can. If they can choose a topic or a piece of literature that they connect with, their papers will be stronger and more thoughtful. But often they sit staring blankly at a piece of paper trying to think of what to write about or how to get started. That’s when I use a free-questioning method. That’s right: free-questioning, not free-writing.

The technique is simple. I ask them to choose a poem from one we’ve read (or if we are focused on one particular piece of literature, to think about that piece) and sit and write for five minutes. My one restriction is that they can only write questions. I tell them that it’s okay if the process seems unnatural at first. If they can’t think of any questions to start with, they can write, “Why do we have to do this silly exercise?” But it doesn’t take long before they move into truly substantial questions.

When the five minutes are up, I ask them to cross off all questions that would require outside research (if the assignment is a close reading assignment) or to cross off any questions that don’t require research (if it’s a research paper). Once they’ve narrowed down the questions, I ask them to choose their three most difficult questions–the three that would require them to really dig into the material. Once they’ve done that, I ask them to choose the one question of the three that they most care about exploring. The students then share their questions, and I give them feedback on whether or not the question might need refining or expanding. Finally, I point out to them that once they discover their answer, that will be their thesis.

This procedure has many advantages, but the main one is that they begin to understand that writing a solid paper requires real engagement with a topic, real questioning and exploring. They also learn that formulating a thesis isn’t as much a mystery as they thought.

Heidi Snow is an associate professor of English at Principia College, and she has been teaching at Principia College for 12 years. Besides being a professor, Heidi is also a published writer. Heidi enjoys reading and traveling abroad to Europe.

Get started with freewriting!

by Laura Tibbetts

Starting a paper can seem daunting, but there are definitely ways to make the process feel more comfortable. One thing that has helped me a lot when I feel stuck and have no idea how to approach a paper is freewriting.

After I’ve gotten a paper topic and before I even have my thesis, I find it very helpful to write down all of my ideas on that topic without worrying about organization, grammar, or making sentences that sound good.

(**Note: if you are writing a research paper, it might be helpful to do some research first so that you have something to write about in your freewrite).

The process of writing down all of your ideas without editing them can often help you think of things that would never have occurred to you otherwise. Also, instead of painstakingly building up a paper sentence by sentence, it can be much more effective to fill pages with freewriting, which you can then edit down into a paper.

One of the best results of freewriting is that it usually brings you to some sort of conclusion that could be formed into a thesis.

Once you have your thesis, you can then go back into your freewrite and pick out all the related ideas, which make a great foundation for your paper!

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.