Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Three Tricks for Talking to Peers About Their Writing: Gravity, Summary, and More

As an extension of yesterday's post on working effectively in peer response groups, we thought we'd offer some more specific descriptions of ways to respond to a fellow student's writing that are specific and helpful, but not aggressive or critical. (We've stolen these ideas from a book called A Community of Writers, by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff.)

1. Point out "Centers of Gravity." The idea here is that after reading a piece, it's helpful to any writer to find out what specific sentences, words, or images were most memorable or leapt out at the reader. This isn't meant to be a formal version of making bland compliments before attacking the writer, though. A writer simply needs to know which sentences worked well, what images readers reacted to, and what material stands out in the piece. When discussing centers of gravity, then, you should try to be as specific and as exact as possible. Point to which sentence, or where in the piece things are working. If a writer knows what works, it can help him figure out how to revise other areas in the piece so that even more works.

2. Use summary and/or "sayback." Most pieces of writing have rough spots in them where a reader is uncertain or confused. Rather than telling a writer, "Your fourth paragraph was confusing," the method of summary/sayback suggests that you go ahead and summarize what you did understand in the paragraph. When you "say back" to the writer what you guessed about in your reading, the writer can then hear what you got right and what you didn't. With that knowledge, the writer can make much more effective decisions about how to fix that spot. If all the writer knows is that paragraph four doesn't work...well, there's no starting point for revision. If the writer knows it's actually sentence three that throws that paragraph into confusion, because readers are guessing that the writer means hedgehods cheat on each other instead of understanding that hedgehods never make promises in the first place, then the writer knows which sentence to fix, and how to fix it.

3. Describe what was almost said, or where you wanted more. It's common in an early draft for some sections of writing to be more fully developed than others. But if you say to someone, "Your fifth paragraph is hardly a paragraph! It's just a little fragment," then they're going to get angry. It's helpful, instead, to point out sections of a paper where a writer seemed like she was about to make an important point, but then moved on too soon. Likewise, there are times that a topic is greatly interesting, but a writer decides she better move on, because she's afraid not everyone wants to hear more about that. It can very useful to writers to hear where in a paper you, as a reader, really wanted to hear more about something. In either case, you're helping the writer see where further development is possible in the paper.

One of the strengths of these methods of feedback is that rather than being evaluative (suggesting that material in a draft is either "good" or "bad"), they're instead descriptive. Centers of gravity are good, but if they're not in the appropriate place in the paper or aren't fully developed, there's still work to be done with them. Summary and sayback of a confusing point is just description of a reading experience--the writer can decide what degree of reader uncertainty is okay, and what needs to be changed. And pointing to areas where something was almost said, or where more could be said, is neither praise nor criticism. It's effectively a way of saying, "This is good, but not quite finished."

And that is true of any early draft! By using some simple feedback methods like these, students often find it easier to have an informative, specific, and open discussion about their writing--and no one gets frustrated or has their feelings hurt.

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