What is the formula for teaching students to write? While many freshman English classes teach students to reproduce essays adequately, the work often lacks what Peter Elbow (1968) refers to as “‘lively’ prose” (p. 122) or “the self revealed in words” (p. 119). In his essay “A Method for Teaching Writing,” Elbow describes this dilemma when he writes, “We all know students who have [voice] yet still write poor essays. But it is a lot. I think it is a root quality of good writing and that we should try to teach it.… And from what he has, the other excellences can grow more naturally, organically–and usually more quickly–than in the case of the student whose words on paper are totally lacking in life” (p. 120). In other words, do we encourage students to express voice, their natural self on the page, with little or no concern for form as a path toward good writing? While I agree with Elbow that it is important to build on a student’s natural writing strengths, I don’t agree that the method for teaching good writing skills is an either or proposition.
In my own experience learning to write, I remember railing against form, feeling that it squelched my creativity. Laurie Sheck, my poetry professor, believed that writers needed to find a way to express themselves within the confines of the form, and that this required more creativity, not less. When I experimented with this idea, I became a convert realizing that many times when writing without a specific form, my creativity failed to materialize or take shape. I wrote some pretty words but they failed to become a poem or a story or an essay. One caveat to note is that this was not an overnight process. The more I experimented with voice and form, the more successful I became in bending, transcending, and sometimes transforming form for my writing purposes. My formula for becoming a good writer is: (experimentation)ⁿ x (voice + form = lively writing) = transcending or transforming the form. Now the trick for me is to transform this formula into a method for teaching others how to write lively prose.
Elbow, P. (1968). A Method for Teaching Writing. College English, 30.2, 115–125. http://www.jstor.org/stable/374447
About the Author
Tori Bond’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Funny Anthology, Monkey Bicycle, Wilderness House Literary Review, Every Day Fiction, and others. She is a student in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Rosemont College.