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I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.
This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.
Peer Response Process
Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.
Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.
There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of the your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.
Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.
Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.
The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.
- Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
- Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
- Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)
Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/heard…”
Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.
Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language. not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)
2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”
This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.
The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.
The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.
3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”
(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)
This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:
- “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that wasn’t in the piece.
- “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.
If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.
4. Author’s Questions
Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”
Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:
- What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
- What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
- What do you want to hear more about?
- What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
- What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
- What holds this piece together?
- Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
- What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
- What seems unnecessary to the piece?
- Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
- What would you remember about it tomorrow?
- Where could I use more detail, more examples?
- What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
- Which sections need more development?
- What tone of voice do you hear in it?
Further Questions to Consider
Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:
- What kind of response do you want from your reader?
- What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
- What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
- What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
- Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
- How will you know when this piece is finished?
- What was the color of the sky when you…?
As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!
If you want to convince your readers of a proposition, you’d better get your stories straight. Telling tales as a prolegomenon1 to logical argumentation (part one).
Story is the meaning-maker of experience. The grossest illustration of this is political spin, which frames information inside a story to promote the desired message. A more subtle and robust example is memoir, in which moments from one’s life are told and reflected on in such a way that themes peek through. Even isolated, totally mundane events change their meaning depending on how we tell them. A beautiful image of this is given early in Vittorio de Sica’s film Miracle in Milan2: A young boy, home alone, heats up a pot of milk, and it boils over onto the floor. His foster mother comes home to find a white river running through her kitchen. We, the audience, expect to see a common story acted out: a scolding, or worse—we know what this means for the boy. But the old woman pulls out a box of toy trees and houses, and places them alongside the stream. She takes the boy’s hand, and together they jump back and forth over the milky way. Same facts; different stories, different meanings.
Now, whereas story discovers meaning, most often multivalent, in experience and facts, exposition reflects on and analyzes those themes. Exposition discovers abstract principles, logical relationships, and hierarchical structures in the themes, and then defines and communicates certain ideas about those themes. Exposition develops ideas about stories, no matter whether the stories are fictive or factual. Theme belongs to story. Thesis belongs to exposition.
Most writing assignments I see when I’m tutoring people—indeed the prevailing paradigm of teaching high school and college writing—mostly ignores story and focuses almost exclusively on exposition. In particular, a thesis statement is identified as one of the first things the student is supposed to produce, without going through the deep process of journaling. The unintended educational effect is to confuse the student’s natural progression of cognition—i.e. the movement from the observation of experiential facts (e.g. the stream of milk on the kitchen floor) to the meaning-making stage (telling a story: that the milk is a play-river) to the expository stage (the idea, for example, that kindness and childlike innocence can lead to miraculous possibility).
A further effect of going straight for the thesis like going for the jugular is artificially to impose abstract exposition onto the making of meaning. Imagine if in de Sica’s film the foster mother came home, saw the spilt milk, and, doing absolutely nothing but standing there—no toys, no jumping game, nothing—simply exclaimed, “My, oh my, childlike innocence can lead to miraculous possibility!” Cut! That’s just pedantic. The abstract idea is trying to stand on bare facts, but in this case has it no legs; there’s no foundation of story. Moving from facts to exposition just gets you more scraps on the cutting room floor. In the pedagogy book Learning to Write / Writing to Learn, James Britton (quoted) explains:
Abstract and impersonal writing is the appropriate end product for writing in physics, biology, chemistry, social studies, history, and so on. That’s the goal we’re aiming at. But if you insist on that from the start—limp around in that kind of language until you can walk in it—then the learning process of moving from personal writing to more abstract never happens.3
In other words, the prevailing thesis-first paradigm takes the goal of meaningful discourse and executes it in the most academic way in the worst sense. The net effect is to render the resulting exposition meaningless, uninspired, and educationally bankrupt. The demand for exposition both first and last—instead of story and meaning first, leading to exposition last—actually damages students’ cognitive abilities by leaving the meaning-making stage of cognition to atrophy.
That’s a statement of the problem. In part two of this post I’ll describe how to use storytelling to create powerful, nuanced arguments.
From the OED (sense #3): “Something that introduces or (necessarily) precedes a subject, event, etc.; a preliminary.” I mean it as necessarily preceding, a preliminary activity without which what follows—i.e. the intended argument—becomes compromised. (N.B. If you are affiliated with a college or university, you should be able to access the full contents of the Oxford English Dictionary through your library’s online reference database.) ↩
The scene in question begins at index 3:33. ↩
This tool is nothing more than an essay template; not a five-paragraph “Baker’s” essay, but a college/grad-school short essay structure based on fundamental principles of logic. I teach this method sparingly because, followed slavishly, it can hinder the highly individual, impressionable and corruptible process of the inner germination of unique ideas. But when you need to grind out one or seven papers, this template can provide an efficient process and a solid product.
Here’s how it works. You start with a worksheet. The worksheet contains the structure of a logical exposition:
- Define the problem / state the question
- Propose a solution, or a clear path to a solution
- Marshal/analyze the evidence
- Conclude (see below—the conclusion is perhaps the most complex step)
Use the worksheet as an outline for the essay. Fill in each step with one or a few sentences. Then write the essay by filling in and fleshing out the concepts that you’ve already articulated on the worksheet—like cooking a full meal from a recipe.
(If you are under enormous pressure to produce several essays one on top of the other, read this paragraph; otherwise skip to the next paragraph.) When the essay is finished, read it over to see whether it makes sense. Make minor adjustments in logic. Then print it and set it aside. Don’t proofread it yet. Just get a snack and a cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, and come back to start the next recipe. Ideally, give each completed essay to the most wonderful, grammar-competent friend in the world, who will proofread and correct it purely out of the goodness of her heart, because she wants nothing more than to help you out in this mad dash for the finish line. If no one is available for this favor, proofread each essay yourself the following day, or after your next recognizable sleep cycle. (The message here is that proofreading it yourself immediately is about as effective as dreaming that you’re proofreading it.) But make sure each essay gets proofread thoroughly! An essay can lose a whole grade or two, or even fail outright, just for looking like a last-minute rush job.
Now, here is each step, with explanations and examples. It is vitally important to note that these steps absolutely do not bear a 1:1 correlation to paragraphs in the essay. Each step theoretically can be from one sentence to ten paragraphs long, depending on the length of your paragraphs and the nature of the topic.
Step 1: Define the problem / state the question. This is both the topic and the driving force of the essay. Always define your terms and include a sensory picture (i.e. concrete image or example) either of the problem/question as a whole, or that exemplifies the problem/question. Be highly descriptive in this step, because it is at this early stage of the essay that concrete language is most crucial.
Example of this step: The Batman is a superhero, in a Nietzschean sense, at least, even though he has no mutant powers. As such his role is to protect Gotham’s citizens from outlaws. For instance, Catwoman is a thief, and the Penguin is a terrorist, and accordingly the Batman thwarts their plans: he prevents the bombs from exploding and restores the stolen goods to their rightful owners. But now the Joker shows up and suddenly the Batman, himself a crime-fighter, begins to operate outside the law—e.g. destroying property and beating up police officers. (This is a real problem, and naturally leads to a question, the answer to which is likely to be illuminating, so the essay has a feeling of purpose.) Does being a superhero make the Batman above the law?
Step 2: Propose a solution, or a clear path to a solution. This is your main idea, often called the “thesis.” It is not, however, to be confused with a rhinoceros thesis, which is often taught as a one-sentence (one-horned) statement that you can prove by putting your head down, ignoring bothersome contradictions, and ramming into the reader’s chest with three to five example-paragraphs. Trying to frame an idea in a single sentence, while useful for clarity of conception, often ends up being more restricting than fruitful.
Example: It seems to be especially in response to the Joker that the Batman must take such extraordinary measures, some of which break the law. If we can discover in what ways the Joker is different from the other criminals, perhaps we can better evaluate the Batman’s unlawful actions.
Note: no thesis statement yet. I could put one in, but for this particular essay it wouldn’t make sense yet. What I have done is given the reader a definite sense of direction in my paper’s inquiry, a clear path to a solution. In a different essay, laying out my thesis here might very well work fine. It depends on the essay.
Step 3: Marshal/analyze the evidence. This is usually the main body of the paper. It’s a detailed exposition of what evidence you have already considered in the prewriting1 stage of your essay process, and what connections you made upon analysis of that evidence, that led you to propose the solution you proposed in step two. Generally, detailed analyses of three to five very specific, organically related items will do the trick. You should briefly outline each of these items separately on the worksheet under (a), (b), (c), (d), (e).
Example: (a) The Joker’s motives are unlike those of other criminals. He murders people randomly, he cares nothing for wealth, and he’s not interested in power in any organized way—he wouldn’t make himself dictator of Gotham City even if he could. He appears to be interested in chaos; in fact every one of his criminal acts appears to function not for personal gain but in order to construct an evil fun house.
(b) The damage the Joker inflicts on Gotham is not fanciful, it’s real and tragic, and outrageously against the law. The job of law enforcement is to stop the Joker.
(c) But Gotham’s law enforcement can’t stop the Joker. He is too big a problem for them to handle. The Joker is beyond the society’s capacity to deal with within the bounds of its justice system.
(d) The Batman, who is willing to work for justice and yet simultaneously outside the legal terms of justice, is needed to battle this heinous madman. The Batman is not above the law, which would imply that he need not pay any attention either to the law’s letter or its spirit. Though he breaks specific laws by specific actions, those actions serve the same greater good which the laws are enacted to serve.
(e) How is Gotham to regard the Batman? How can a law-abiding city condone, much less celebrate, breaking the law in order to uphold it, without opening the floodgates to vigilanteism? The Batman must be considered an outlaw; an outlaw who is also a hero.
Step 4: Conclusion. In this step you tie all the threads of the essay together in this way: In light of the foregoing evidence and analysis in step three, evaluate (i.e. discuss the relative robustness, parsimony, and limitations of) the solution you proposed in step two, as this solution applies to the original problem/question in step one.
Example: An outlaw-hero would appear to be either an oxymoron or a paradox. In the Batman’s case, because his heroism is as authentic as his dark, cave-hidden methods are liable to prosecution, it is a paradox: both statements, outlaw and hero, are true. Commissioner Gordon once spoke of the historical suspicion that F.D.R. knew the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor, and he let the bombing happen, let innocent people die, because he knew it was the only way the U.S. would get into the Second World War to fight the Nazis. Gordon tried to judge whether F.D.R. had done right, but ultimately decided that he “couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”2 Similarly the Batman breaks strict categories of lawfulness and challenges us to think about existential moral choices: what does it mean to place oneself outside of society’s restrictions, as well as outside society’s protections, and yet act as an agent of that society’s good? Perhaps the fact that the popular imagination tends to read the exploits of the Batman as ultimately heroic implies that there are moral impulses which are harder to define than lawful and unlawful behavior.
Make as many copies of the worksheet as you’d like. Remember to fill in the worksheet before writing out the essay. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t brainstorm, freewrite, etc. in order to come up with ideas; you absolutely should (in fact, this template won’t work if you don’t). But once you have your ideas, structure them into the worksheet. This is essential if you’re under time constraints. If you have plenty of time, use the worksheet merely as a guide, or as a way to check up on the organization of a paper you’ve already written, or however else it is useful to you. If the worksheet gets in your way, do what you would do if you met the Buddha in the road: kill it.
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