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February 22, 2006

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.