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The Calculus of Writing

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

tori18x10.jpgTori 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.

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