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Peter Elbow, "Closing my Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience"

Near the end of this piece, Elbow sounds the following warning: "If we are trying to advance contraries, we mus be prepared for paradoxes." The same advice should be given to readers as they prepare to tackle this article!

Elbow's central point is that sometimes it's best NOT to think about an audience when writing - even if the writing really is targeted at a particular group of readers. Since concerns about audience reaction can intimidate writers, stifle creative thought, or even cause a complete block in the composing process, Elbow says that writers should sometimes consider ignoring the audience. If that's not possible, he suggests at least thinking of a friendly, uninhibiting audience when writing. He claims that "writer-based prose" can be better than writing that caters to an audience's expectations.

In defending his ignore-the-audience approach, Elbow discusses contrasting models of cognitive development, noting the ways in which they relate to writing. Using the Piagetian model ("language-begins-as-private"), Elbow says, one will conclude that the way to improve weak writing is to "think more about readers." Elbow suggests that Vykotsy's model ("language-begins-as-social") should perhaps be given more emphasis in writing - and that the result would allow the possibility that weak writing could be improved by a writer engaging herself more.

Elbow also touches on the paradox of written discourse being both social and internal. Cautioning against an either/or approach, he says that writers should sometimes consciously address an audience (be it self or other), and sometimes ignore one.

He ends with several practical guidelines. One suggestion is that teachers respond to student writing by "replying" rather than simply "giving feedback." Another is to put readers out of mind when one finds them stifling - and then to bring them back in the revision stage. Elbow suggests, too, that writers increase awareness of their own writing processes and of the effects that audience awareness can have.


From Heather:

>One suggestion is that teachers respond to>student writing by "replying" rather than >simply "giving feedback."


I think he's referring to the same phenomenon he did in an earlier article, where he said that often the best help you can give a writer is "telling them what you heard." So instead of correcting something or replying as a judge, you reply as a reader and say, "What I thought I heard you saying..." I think this sort of feedback is crucial to developing writing.

My own thoughts--I began as an antagonist, as I'm far more Vygotskiian than Piagetian, and I think that language implies audience. However, while I think this "ignoring audience" thing is merely a mental trick, a way of fooling ourselves (akin to authors who say "the characters told me how to write the story")--I think it's a trick that works.

Writing teachers often, often tell their students that they must have two hats--the "writer hat" and the "editor hat." When you're wearing the writer hat, audience and internal critic be damned, just write it out. Then later, put on the "editor hat."

One more thing... I found that my students, in their first poems, merely told me about emotion rather than evoking it or "giving it" to the reader. However, I don't think this is because they were at a different cognitive state or are more self-centered, etc. etc. I think it's only that they didn't know how poetry is supposed to work. Once set on the right path, they got it.

I felt Elbow was writing this article to a particular audience: me. I have an incredibly hard time letting go of audience and just writing. Since I am deep in the throws of writing my dissertation, I am always always hampered by the discourse community that is my audience, not to mention my advisor-as-audience phobia.

I like Elbow's suggestion that I can avoid passing this angst onto my students by replying to their work rather than offering feedback or writing comments that justify the grade, or by giving them ample opportunities and guidance for freewriting, journal writing, and "invisible" writing. However, when it comes to the formal essays that students must write for a grade, I wonder how many of them will be able to suspend audience since so many of them, as Rose points out, don't draft or don't start writing until the last minute. It seems Rose would argue that Elbow's mental trick can only work when students can also suspend belief in the rules governing academic writing.

When Elbow limits his claim to say, "It's not that writers should never think about their audience. It's a question of when" (296), I feel a little better. I agree that over-consciousness of audience can cause the "rule" consciousness that blocks--writers can assume that their audience has algorithmic expectations. Elbow warns us not to let our "internal editors" into the room too soon.

I've found, however, that by imagining a reader --even a reader who is not "generous" but has specific expectations--student writers can be freed- up to write because the activity becomes less arbitrary. When, for example, I ask first-year writers to write their argument to a reader that has a stake in opposing their arguments, they are able to sequence their writing meaningfully and anticipate and address counterarguments.

Again, when working with first-year writers, I find them locked into a scenario in which their teachers are their only assumed audience and getting a good grade is their writerly purpose. To write to a "real," imaginable audience, for a "real" imaginable purpose (to express, to inform, to persuade) can come as an immense relief!

In the first semester, I make a very conscious decision to avoid discussions of audience for the very reasons Elbow sets forth in his article. But it seems to me that, sooner or later, I need to address it in some way. I'm struggling with that a little bit now, as my current students are working on more sophisticated writing and research projects, and I'm asking them to really think about and analyze audience to give their work some meaning, and to get them to think creatively about the relationship between writing and research. I guess I wonder what beginning writers really understand about audience (especially when I don't always understand it myself!), and if, in the final analysis, audience for this group of students will always equal ME. In other words, I can talk until I'm blue in the face about audience, but are they really thinking, yes, I get it about audience, but all I really want to know is what YOU want? Maybe it comes down doing a better job of teaching why, at the appropriate moment, audience is important, even if in the context of a required writing assignment it can seem artificial.

This article was an eye-opener for me because, as I think about it, I don't believe that, except in situations like this one, I ever write for an audience that is not myself. I've always felt like I allow people to enter my world when I let them read my writing. I will admit that this approach has met with somewhat mixed results in my classwork. At times, instructors have reacted very positively. At others, they haven't. But I think that this attitude is not a bad one to have when approaching student writing because it allows me to feel privileged that students allow me to enter their worlds. I think that students are very scared that what they have to say is unimportant. If we approach an essay as if we truly care about what the student has to say, this has a mitigating effect on their negative attitudes. One other thing, I generally try to strike up a conversation, at least once during the semester,with each student where I ask them about something they have written. This further helps them to feel that I am a responsive audience and that they should feel confident in what they write.

I found myself a little resistant to Elbow's essay in part because I felt so resistant to "Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic," but I think Elbow is largely right here, or at least he comes very close to getting at my experience as a writer. I almost never consciously think about my audience when I write. (I certainly do when I revise, though.) In fact, the only times I find myself thinking about my audience while writing are when I'm composing for a non-scholarly audience, if I'm, for instance, writing a cover letter or a grant. This is interesting because resume writing and grant writing isn't really about exploring ideas (what we normally want our students to do); it is about selling oneself to one's audience, about giving one's audience what they want, not what you think they ought to have (or for writers who don't think about audience, what you think is worth having). While I do often ask myself questions like "Is this smart?" or "Is the well supported enough" while I'm writing, I almost never find myself wondering "will so-and-so think this is well supported?" At the same time, I certainly do not want to say that my audience has not shaped my thinking process, but I think Elbow is right in suggesting that there is a difference between public and private, between writing to a specific audience and to writing oneself even if one is always already shaped by one's discourse community. What does this mean, though, for that writing prompt, "assume that your audience is a classmate"? As Bartholomae notes, our students' classmates wouldn't write about the subject we're asking them to and they certainly wouldn't try to write about it with the depth or nuance that we want them to write about it with. At the same time, successful students do a lot more than "hawk" themselves to their instructors; students who are only going through the motions rarely care enough about their assignments to do them well. Does this mean, then, that we're asking students (a.) to pretend that they are members of a discourse community and (b.) write to themselves as members of that community?

Okay, now I have the vocabulary to express... No, that's not it, I'm still thinking about audience... Start again... Now I know why I have so much trouble blogging. Whenever I sit down to blog, I think of you all, and become overwhelmed. I start to analyze my word choice -- is it academic enough? Too academic? What will you think of me? This will stay up all semester -- well, actually this may stay up longer than that -- it's out of my control. Whoa, I even started to erase that, because you'll think I'm a control freak. Maybe I am a control freak -- okay, now I'm in my head. "in my head" Hmmm. Would that be an accurate way to describe ignoring the audience?

I love the concept of "replying" to students' work. It fits in with the overall purpose of socializing students to think of academic writing as an ongoing conversation.

To carry the conversation even further, Don Ross told us last week that he asks students to respond (via email) to his comments. I'll admit I get nervous when I think about that -- where does it end? Then again, why do I worry about that -- am I just trying to control the conversation?

Yes, I saw Don's suggestion, too. I wonder about the process of "summing up what I said;" if maybe it seems more that we're treating them like grown-ups if we ask if they have questions, or want to ask further about something...

But about e-mail, I think it can be a very efficient means of instructor-student communication. I have one class this semester where I'm submitting 99 percent of my writing via e-mail. The instructor hasn't responded to any of it, but I don't mind and I still think I'm learning from the writing.

In this article, Elbows points out how teaching writing is fixed with two contraries tasks:
a) To enhance the social dimension of writing and
b) To learn how to be less aware of audience
There are several dilemmas, and certainly more that two contradictions about writing:
• Conscious rules versus not conscious rules
• Plan versus not plan
• Being and academic versus being a writer
• Disciplinary discourse norms versus personality type of writing
• Audience in-the-head versus audience in community
• Audience awareness versus private thoughts
I would even add another one:
• Personal time to write versus deadlines.
Up to a certain point, most of these dilemmas are part of any creative act or process. But I agree that in writing creation the main dilemma is WHEN the writer has to be concerned with each one of these matters.
Finally, I feel a little relief with Elbow’s “Practical guideline about audience? but this guideline reveals Elbow’s fully awareness about his anxious readers.

To me it makes sense to encourage students to become more comfortable with writing for themselves, simply because I believe that's how people come to love writing. I also like the idea of acknowledging that private writing takes practice.

Framing writing for onself in terms of "writing to learn" (which he mentions, 300) is one approach -- private writing as self-discovery, exploration of topics, assimilation of diverse readings and other research.

The Trimbur statement that good writing "may be an attempt to construct (and instruct) a reader capable of reading the text in question" (298) appealed to me. This implies reaching for the readers, holding out syntactical branches that they can grasp, encouraging them to climb onto semantic sandbars -- in other words, giving some consideration to how to communicate your meaning to audiences, constructing your text in ways that cause readers to follow you.

Seems a task for experienced writers, but it might be an effective writing exercise (at a point when writers are ready to consider audience). I might ask student writers to construct in their minds an ideal audience (attitudes, reactions, etc.) ... and then use that to consider which textual markers and maneuvers could invoke some of those reader responses. Puts the focus on the heady power of writing, what we can do with words, rather than on powerful readers who trample our intentions.