On writing: Elbows, Richards, and me

Writing guru Peter Elbow, like Stephen Krashen, does not want students –or teachers—to focus on grammar and spelling until the very last stage of the writing process, because such micro-editing concerns tend to inhibit writers and lead to the dreaded and much bemoaned writer’s block. Elbow suggests that children should be encouraged to create freely and not be concerned with form, structure, or grammar during the production stage. In other words, kids should be allowed to make a “mess” when they write.

Regina Richards, on the other hand, puts “proofing” –which she defines as “looking for errors”—smack in the middle of the writing process, between “writing the draft” and “editing (elaborate and enhancing [sic] the content)” (np).  Richards stresses that the different stages of the writing process must be extensively modeled and practiced, so that they become automatic. This brings me to a major obstacle in implementing many of the suggestions espoused by the writing pedagogy experts: Time. Most of these suggestions seem to be written with the elementary school classroom in mind, where teachers usually have large chunks of time at their disposal, to distribute among subjects as they see fit. In middle and high school, however, we have forty-five minute class periods into which to fit all of our instruction.

Time issues thus become central in our pursuit of better writing instruction. When to fit in all the direct instruction, the modeling, and the practice that students need?  Writing and editing both require time. Students must also have enough time to become confident, as Graves says, as well as for the writing skills to become automaticized, as Richards advocates.

Students also need individualized feedback. There’s only one of me. It takes time and effort to read and comment meaningfully on student writing. Even taking into account Graves’s guidelines for feedback that is responsive, questioning, and points the student along to the next step of the process without taking ownership away from the student writer, it would still take several minutes per student. When you have 25 students in a class, those few minutes per kid add up quickly.

In order to become proficient writers, students need to write more than we teachers can humanly read, let alone grade.  In my classroom, the students and I use writing as a way to learn and to think, through many varied and frequent writing tasks, low and high stakes, timed and not, in-class and at-home, creative and academic.  Self-reflection is an indispensable tool for learning – students learn to be cognizant of and to monitor their own learning process.

To stave off anxiety and writer’s block, we focus on reading and writing as a process. The writing process starts with the generation of ideas and ends with the publishing (or handing in) of the completed piece of writing. I help students to separate the idea productions from the drafting, and the drafting from the editing. In my classroom, we value “crappy first drafts.” Rewriting is what makes a text good, but there cannot be any rewriting without first writing.

Above all, in my classroom we live by the maxim: Writers write.

For more Peter Elbows, visit:

Peter Elbow on Writing | Media Education Foundation.


One response to this post.

  1. I can empathize with your appraisal of the “correcting papers” problem that teachers (particularly English teachers) suffer from. There are too many of them, and none of us have clones.


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