From Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, Sharing and Responding (New York: Random House, 1989)

Summary of Ways of Responding


First paradox: The reader is always right; the writer is always right.

The reader gets to decide what's true about her reaction: about what she sees or what happened to her, about what she thinks or how she feels. It makes no sense to quarrel with the reader about what's happening to her (though you can ask the reader to explain more fully what she is saying).

But you, as the writer, get to decide what to do about the feedback you get: what changes to make, if any. You don't have to follow her advice. Just listen openly -- swallow it all. You can do that better if you realize that you get to take your time and make up your own mind -- perhaps making no changes in your writing at all.

Second paradox: The writer must be in charge; the writer must sit back quietly too.

As the writer, you must be in control. It's your writing. Don't be passive or helpless. Don't just put your writing out and let them give you any feedback. You need to decide what kind of feedback (if any) you need for this particular piece of writing. Is your main goal to improve this piece of writing? Or perhaps you don't really care about working any more on this piece -- your main goal is to work on your writing in general. Or perhaps you don't want to work at anything-but instead just enjoy sharing this piece and hearing what others have to say. You need to make your own decisions about what will help you. Don’t let readers make those decisions.

Therefore ask readers for what you want or need -- and insist that you get it. Don't be afraid to stop them if they start giving you what you don't want. (Remember, for instance, that even after you are very experienced with all kinds of feedback, you may need to ask readers to hold back all criticism for a piece that you feel tender about. This can be a very appropriate decision; stick up for it.)

Nevertheless, you mostly have to sit back and just listen. If you are talking a lot, you are probably preventing them from giving you the good feedback they could give. (For example, don't argue if they misunderstand what you wrote. Their misunderstanding is valuable. You need to understand their misunderstanding better in order to figure out whether you need to make any changes.)

Let the readers tell you if they think you are asking for inappropriate feedback -- or for feedback they can't give or don't want to give. For example, they may sense that your piece is still unformed and think that it doesn't make sense to give judgment. They may think sayback or descriptive feedback would be more helpful. Or they may simply hate giving judgment. Listen to them. See whether perhaps you should go along: they may be right.

If you aren't getting honest, serious, or caring feedback, don't just blame your readers. It's probably because you haven't convinced them that you really want it. Instead of blaming the readers, simply insist that they give you what you need.

What follows is a summary of the kinds of feedback we have earlier described.



How to Use It

When It's Useful



Just read your words out loud; see what they sound like. You probably learn more from the act of reading in the presence of listeners than from any kind of feedback.

When you don't have much time. Or at a very early stage when you're just exploring or feeling fragile about what you've written and don't want criticism. It's also useful when you are completely finished with a piece: you've finally got it the way you want it or you don't have the time or energy to make any changes-so it's time to celebrate by sharing it with others and not getting feedback at all.




How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "Say back to me in your

At an early stage when you are still

own words what you hear me getting

groping, when you may not vet have

at in my writing. But say it more as a

been able to write what you are really

question than as an answer-to invite

trying to say. If readers say back to

me to figure out better what I really

you what they hear-and invite you

want to Say."

to talk-this often leads you to exactly


what you want to write.


How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "Which words or phrases

When you want to know what is

stick in mind? Which passages or

getting through. Or when you want a

features did you like best? Don't

bit of confidence and support.

explain why."




How to Use It

When It's Useful

Ask: "What do you hear as my main

When you want to know what's

point or idea (or event or feeling)?

getting through. If a reader says she

And the subsidiary ones?"

disagrees with you, you need to know

what she thinks you are saying.


What's Almost Said or Implied

How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "What’s almost said,

When you need new ideas or need to

implied, hovering around the edges?

expand or develop what you've

What would you like to hear more

written-or when you feel your piece


isn't rich or interesting enough. What


you don't say in a piece of writing


often determines the reactions of


readers as much as what you do say. If


this is an important piece of writing


for you, you had better look to


feedback about the implications.



Center of Gravity

How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "What do you sense as

Same as for "What's Almost Said," above.

the source of energy, the focal point


the seedbed, the generative center for


this piece?" (The center of gravity


Might well not be the "main point"


but rather some image, phrase,


Quotation, detail, or example.)



Structure; Voice, Point of View, Attitude toward the Reader,' Level of abstraction or Concreteness;

Language, Diction, Syntax

How to Use Them-

When They're Useful



Ask readers to describe each

At any stage. When you need more perspective.

of these features or dimensions of


your writing.



Metaphorical Descriptions

How to Use Them

When They're Useful



Ask readers; "Describe my piece in

At any stage. When your writing feels

terms of weathers, clothing, colors,

stale and you need a fresh view. If

animals. Describe the shape of my

readers learn to give this kind of

piece. Give me a picture of the reader-

feedback, their other feedback tends to

writer relationship. What's your

improve. Sometimes young,

fantasy of what was on my mind that

inexperienced, or naive readers can't

I wasn't writing about ('substitute

give you other kinds of feedback but


give very perceptive metaphorical feedback.



Skeleton Feedback

How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers to tell You about these

When writing a persuasive essay or

three main dimensions of your paper:

any essay that makes a claim. At an


early stage when you have a lot of

  • Reasons and support. ("What do

unorganized exploratory writing,

you see as my main point and

skeleton feedback is a way to get help

my sub-points-and the

from your readers in adding to and

arguments or evidence that I give

organizing your material. At a late

or could give to support each?")

stage, readers help you analyze


strengths and weaknesses. It's also

  • Assumptions. ("What does my

helpful for giving yourself feedback

paper seem to take for granted?'




  • Audience. ("Who do I imply as


my audience? How would my


reasons work for them? How do I


seem to treat them in general?")



Believing and Doubting

How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "Believe (or pretend to

The believing game alone is good

believe) everything I have written. Be

when you want help and support for

my ally and tell me what you see.

an argument you are struggling with.

Give me more ideas and perceptions

Together they are useful at any stage.

to help my case. Then doubt

They provide strong perspective.

everything and tell me what you see.


What arguments can be made against what I say?"



Descriptive Outline

How to Use It

When It's Useful



Ask readers: "Write me says and does

Descriptive outlines make most sense

sentences-for my whole essay and

for essays-and are particularly useful

for each paragraph or section." Does

for persuasive pieces or arguments.

sentences shouldn't mention

They give you the most perspective.

the content of the paragraph-i.e.,

Only feasible when the reader has the

shouldn't slide into repeating the says

text in hand and can give a lot of time


and care. Particularly useful for


giving feedback to yourself.



How to use It

When It's Useful



Get readers to tell you frankly what

Movies of the reader's mind are useful

happens inside their heads as they

at any stage-but they depend on a

read your words. Here are ways to help

relationship of trust and support with


readers. They can lead to blunt

criticism. They're most useful for

  • interrupt their reading and have

long-range learning: they -may not give

them tell their interim reactions.

you direct help in improving this


particular draft.

  • Get them to tell reactions in the form of a story (first ... then . . . )




  • Get them to give subjective "I statements" about what is happening in them, not allegedly objective "it statements" about the text.




  • If they are stuck, ask them questions (e.g., about where they go along and where they resist, about their feelings on the topic before and after reading).




How to Use It

When It's Useful



Traditional criteria for imaginative or

When you want to know how your

creative writing:

writing measures up to certain criteria.


Or when you need a quick overview


of strengths and weaknesses. This


kind of feedback depends on


experienced and skilled readers. And

Traditional criteria for expository

still you should always take it with

or essay writing:

a grain of salt.



  • Focus on task. (Does it squarely


address the assignment, question, or task?)




  • Content. (You might want to


distinguish three dimensions:


ideas; details or examples;






  • Clarity.




  • Organization.




  • Sense of the writer. (Voice, tone,


stance toward the reader.)




  • Mechanics. (Spelling, grammar,


punctuation; proofreading.)




Of course, you can specify whatever


criteria you think right for a given


piece of writing: what the particular


writing task demands (e.g., persuading


the reader) or what you are currently


working on (e.g., voice). Or you can


let readers specify the criteria that


they think are most important.




Certain of these feedback procedures particularly increase your perspective and thus improve your feedback from yourself