Dr. Judith M. Newman

Responding to Writers

Adapted from
Writing Without Teachers
Peter Elbow, 1973, London: Oxford University Press

All writers experience trepidation when they contemplate showing their writing to someone else! That’s a by-product of what happened to your writing in school—your teachers told you what they thought were the weak and strong points and suggested things you should change.

However, to improve your writing you DON’T need advice about what changes to make. You DON’T need theories of what is good and bad writing. What you need to know is what sense your readers have made, what questions they have, where they got confused, what digressions they took off on when they read your words. You need what Peter Elbow calls “movies of people’s minds”.

Here are some suggestions for giving movies of your mind when reading for another writer. This is the same feedback you’ll find helpful from your readers, as well.

  • Start by simply pointing to the words and phrases which stood out for you, either because they seemed particularly apt or because they were jarring for some reason.
  • Summarize the writing:
    • Tell quickly what you thought were the main points, the center of gravity of the piece
    • See if you can summarize the whole thing in a single sentence
    • Don’t plan or think too much about it; the point is to help the writer see what stood out in your head—it’s not a test to see if you got the meaning “right”!
  • Tell the writer everything that happened to you when you read the writing—it’s useful to tell it as a story: “I felt confused about …, but then I saw a connection…. I especially liked… I found myself going back after …”

    The important thing in telling is not to get too far away from talking about the actual writing; remember the writer is interested in how his or her writing worked.

  • When you read something you have perceptions and reactions that you’re not fully aware of and therefore can’t “tell” about. However, you may be able to SHOW them:
    • Talk about the writing as if you were describing voices: it lectured, it droned, it ran…
    • Talk about the writing as if you were talking about weather: it was foggy, clear, crisp…
    • Talk about the writing as if you were talking about motion: it marched, strolled…
    • Describe what you think the writer’s intentions were
    • Writing is like a lump of clay—tell what you’d do with that clay
    • Paint the picture the writing conjured up for you
  • Try writing a quick synopsis and share it with the writer

    Telling is like looking inside yourself to see what you can report; showing is like installing a window in the top of your head so the writer can see for him or herself.

Some General Advice to Readers

  • Make sure you’ve had enough time to read the piece through twice, taking a bit of time between each reading to let the words and ideas sink in. Don’t let yourself be hurried
  • Remember no kind of reaction is wrong, insufficient, perhaps, but not wrong. So don’t struggle with your reactions—just let them happen
  • Try to avoid giving advice; on the other hand, if the interaction between you and the words produces some suggestions, don’t hold back
  • Like advice, evaluation in itself has no value; it doesn’t provide insight into your experience as a reader
  • Your job as reader is to offer the writer your immediate impressions; you’re not trying to fix the writing but to help the writer understand your experience of it.

Some General Advice To Writers

  • Be quite and listen!
  • After you have a reader’s reactions you can explain what you intended or what you think you’ve put into the writing
  • Don’t reject what readers tell you—listen to what they say as if it were all true. You can consider their responses later
  • Listen openly and take it in, but don’t be paralyzed by what they tell you
  • You’re not looking for readers to tell you HOW to write; you need them to tell you what thought processes your writing evoked
  • Remember, it’s their job to give you their experience; it’s your job to decide what to do with that information—you don’t have to act on any response, you just have to consider what it tells you about your writing

Make sure your readers know what you want from them—SPELL IT OUT. If there’s some particular kind of feedback you would find helpful, ask for it.