Focused Freewrites (FFW):
Response Journal

Focused freewriting is perhaps the most versatile pre-writing technique of all. A focused freewrite is the same as a regular freewrite (all the same rules apply), except it starts with a prompt. Some quick examples:

Do a ten-minute focused freewrite…

  • about one of your favorite foods
  • describing a peak experience you had as a student
  • beginning with the words, “From when I was eleven years-old, I remember…”

The response journal (a.k.a. “2-column” or “double-entry” or “dialectical” journal) is a kind of focused freewrite in which the focusing prompt is a quote, and the freewrite is a response to that quote. Response journals are endlessly useful. Whole, thoughtful, original, well developed essays can easily evolve out of a series of response journals.

How to do a response journal

  1. From a piece you’ve finished reading, go back and choose a quote
    • Generally speaking, a quote no longer than a single sentence and as short as a single word is the easiest and most fruitful to work with)
    • The quote should draw your attention (why is totally irrelevant); pick a short passage that strikes you in some way
  2. At the top of a fresh page, preferably in a different color, copy out the quote (the whole quote: writing it yourself is a way of taking it in)
  3. Under the quote, write a FFW response

What kind of response, though? Well, any kind, as long as it is a response. A response is when we listen to something that someone else has said, and say something back that is in some way related to what they have said. Our response might be personal, analytical, descriptive, comparative, sympathetic, argumentative, or something else, or some combination of two or more styles—in other words, no rules. If you said to me: “Nice weather today,” I could respond in various ways:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I thought it was cold, but you’ve made me feel warmer. Thank you!”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Reminds me of being in San Diego. Not enough rain, though.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “What do you mean by ‘nice’? ‘Kind’? ‘Solicitous’? ‘Gentle’?…”

These are all responses to what you’ve said to me. By contrast, here are some ways I could react that wouldn’t be responses:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Piss off.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I’m, like, totally in love with your voice.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Whatever. Where can I get a good hamburger?”

What do these reactions have in common? Not one of them has taken in what you’ve said, and given something back in conversation. Response journals are conversations with the text.

Sample response journal

Here’s an example of a three-minute double-entry journal on the poem “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence:1

a woman is singing to me

A woman. A woman singing makes me think of my mother singing to me at bedtime. Except my mother didn’t actually do that. So I guess I’m just thinking of some mother singing to her child—I mean, singing her child to sleep. It’s comforting, a comforting picture. For some reason I’m seeing a big down-feather blanket—a comforter—and the mom sitting in a wood chair next to the bed. She’s singing. There’s nothing else in the room, just the mother’s voice.

As you may suspect by now, the response is a true free write: no should s about the content. This is your chance to explore the text freely; to interrogate its concepts, conjure its images, test its implications and boundaries, play with its language, and plumb its associations. Freely written responses do all of these things. Analytical responses are fine; over-analytical responses miss much. The more parts of yourself you allow to respond, the richer your reading and writing will become.

  1. Here is the complete poem(1918):


How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.

P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?

  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 


No Freedom Without Representation. No Representation Without Reading.

A learner is one who walks the paths to knowledge. Knowledge leads to freedom. Take, for example, Frederick Douglass.1

While still a slave Douglass learned to read and write, which he accomplished by cajoling some white boys to tutor him without knowing that’s what they were doing. Now, Douglass had suffered the horrors and indignities of slavery before becoming literate, but it was only after he began reading that he became fully conscious of just how intolerable his condition was, and why it was intolerable. In other words, he knew, before learning to read, that he was a slave, but he only knew it as a matter of fact. When as a child, cowering in a closet, he inadvertently witnessed the whipping of his aunt, he experienced shock and terror, anticipating that the leather would be turned against him in due course. This and multiple other devastating events, left unreflected upon in illiteracy, might very well have made of Douglass’s whole life one long, unending trauma. His autobiographical Narrative, however, transformed these horrors into history, into a perspective on human behavior and relations, that continues to serve as a moral touchstone in our civilization.

It was only after learning to read that Douglass was able, while in the midst of experiencing, to represent his experiences to himself, because the very acts of both writing and reading are acts of representation. Writing and reading externalize words from human speech. Words on a page are objective containers of sentences that were originally thought by a subjective author. Printed words stand outside and apart from the subject-writer and the subject-reader. When Douglass learned his letters, then his alphabet, then the sentences of his appropriated composition book, he developed his brain in such a way as to be able to symbolize inner experiences outside of himself. Always before, when illiterate, he’d felt the freezing cold through a whole winter with only a single coarse, knee-length shirt and no pants, shoes, or jacket; his bones felt that. But those winters were not part of any narrative, in the most fundamental sense, until he was able to step outside of his experiences and see himself in them by representing the events of his life to himself in language.

Douglass describes, upon learning to read, how he came to understand the implications of what being a slave meant. Before reading, slavery was the epitome of misery. But it wasn’t until after reading that slavery became, in Douglass’s mind and heart, repugnant to moral conscience and loathsome in all human feeling. The realization of this exacted a heavy toll. Douglass was now burdened not only by his condition but also by an acute consciousness of his condition. He fell into a depression. After a climactic, revolutionary fistfight with an especially vicious master, Douglass might have continued as a slave, sullen and belligerent as he had become at that point in his life, but he had gained something from reading that would change the course of his reality: concepts.

Slavery was no longer the de facto necessary condition of Frederick Douglass’s existence, as it had been when the main thing he knew about himself was that he was owned by someone else. But now he had developed the understanding, reading the Columbian Orator, that slavery was unnecessary, that it was imposed, and that it must be stopped, beginning with his own emancipation. For Douglass, freedom began as a fresh concept. His knowledge of the ideas of slavery and freedom enabled him, first of all, to imagine a different life for himself and for others suffering the same fate. He was then able to judge what was right. And he was empowered thus to act in accordance with his convictions.

Frederick Douglass escaped and became a free citizen. He went on to become an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a U.S. marshall, a diplomat, an influential public speaker, a newspaper publisher, and author of three autobiographical accounts of his life. These are all very impressive lines on a resume, but what impresses me most about Douglass’s work—apart from his writings, which are of incalculable value to successive generations—were his active support of abolition and of women’s rights. The concepts he learned did not—do not—only apply within a single cause. His knowledge transcended the boundaries of his original political affiliations. What was right and worth doing were realms larger than himself, larger than his personal experiences. Learning and knowledge connected Douglass with, and called him to act in, the world beyond the self.

  1. Douglass’s birthday anniversary is February 17th, the occasion of this post. 


How to Take Notes While Reading an Essay (Annotation)

In the margin of your text, write at least one note next to every single paragraph. Each note can be just a few words, or a short sentence. In your entire set of notes, include at least one (preferably more than one) of each of the following kinds:

  1. Main idea in this paragraph (a good way to find the main idea is to start by writing: In this paragraph I hear the author saying… and seeing what comes next)

  2. Purpose (what is the author trying to achieve in this paragraph?)

  3. Intended audience: to whom is the author directing (all or one particular part of) this paragraph?

  4. Rhetorical strategy (rhetorical strategies include asking questions, giving examples, creating an image, making a metaphor, defining a term or phrase, comparing/contrasting, threatening with something worse, offering something better, praise, satire, personal report/confession, laying the groundwork for an argument…&c.)

  5. Logical device (logical devices include syllogism (if A is true and B is true, then C must be true), appeals to authority (e.g. if a Nobel prize-winner says it, it must be true), guilt, etc.)

  6. Any interesting comparison you notice to statements in other things you’ve read (e.g. Compare this to what Orwell says on page…)

  7. Anything else that feels important to note.


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday