Peter Elbow is a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also directed the Writing Program from 1996 until 2000. He writes about theory, practice, and pedagogy, and has authored several books and a number of papers. His practices in regards to editing and revising, are now widely accepted and taught as the writing process. The invention technique freewriting, is dubbed as a "student-centered movement."
In the introduction to the second edition of Writing Without Teachers, Elbow says that his interest in writing practices came from his own difficulty with writing. He attended Proctor Academy and Williams College from 1953 to 1957. While at the University of Oxford on scholarship from Williams, he was unable to write the assigned essays. When he began his PhD in English at Harvard University, his writing difficulties persisted causing him to leave in the first year of his studies. Elbow began teaching, first as an instructor at M.I.T from 1960–1963, and then as one of nine founding members of Franconia College from 1963-1965. It was at Franconia where Elbow discovered he could write more easily when writing for colleagues or students rather than as an assigned piece.
In 1965 he returned to graduate school, this time at Brandeis University. He developed a self-analytical process of writing, mostly out of fear that he would not be able to write for teachers again. Elbow has said that the process of freewriting really came about during this time in his life. He would sit down with his typewriter and type out all his thoughts, making writing a sort of therapy. This helped him to get through the graduate level writing and when it came time for him to write his dissertation, he had many ideas, but ultimately settled on Chaucer. He would eventually make his dissertation book-length and publish it in 1975 under the title Oppositions in Chaucer.
After receiving his PhD, Elbow accepted a position at M.I.T in 1968, turning down an offer from Berkeley to remain in the Boston area for personal reasons. While sitting in his office one day in 1970, a representative from Oxford University Press came to show him some books that he might like to use in his classes. Then the representative asked Elbow if he was writing anything, Elbow replied that he had thought about trying to write something to do with teacher-less writing groups, a concept he had become interested in. Soon after, he had an advance to begin a book called Writing Without Tears, which would later become Writing Without Teachers. In the nearly 40 years since then, Elbow has penned more than 10 books, as well as numerous articles regarding writing technique and theory.
Free writing, a term commonly used by Elbow, coined by Ken Macrorie, is to write without stopping, without editing, without sharing, without worrying about grammar, without thinking, without rushing. Elbow wants his students (and others) to write whatever they want, however they want but just write daily-10 to 15 minutes for one freewrite. Normal freewriting can be adapted to focused freewriting and public freewriting. Focused freewriting is trying to stay on a topic, which is particularly useful when a student has a specific assignment to do. Public freewriting is geared toward being shared, which makes it seem a little more risky but it is very useful in groups, especially where there is trust, and growth can occur. The goal of this exercise is to bring about a more natural language, while making the writing process easier and more comfortable to the student.
Criterion- and reader-based feedback
Feedback techniques are also among Elbow’s practices. These techniques, presented in Writing With Power, are divided into two types: criterion-based and reader-based feedback. Criterion-based feedback judges the writing against standard criteria, such as content, usage, organization, and general effectiveness. Elbow claims this is the kind of feedback that most people are used to giving and receiving. What Elbow says is quite useful about criterion-based feedback is that it allows the writer to reflect on her or his own writing as he goes along. It also allows her or him to recognize common troubles he has in writing so that he can avoid them in the future. In Writing With Power, Elbow gives a catalogue of criterion-based questions. These questions all stem from the following essential questions:
- What is the quality of the content of the writing: the ideas, the perceptions, the point of view?
- How well is the writing organized?
- How effective is the language?
- Are there mistakes or inappropriate choices of usage?.
While criterion-based feedback may seem obvious, it is the inclusion of reader-based feedback that makes this overall method fresh for teachers.[according to whom?] Elbow claims that reader-based feedback lets the writer see what thoughts and feelings occur in a reader's mind as he or she is reading the text. Elbow calls this type of feedback "movies of the reader's mind." The list of detailed questions Elbow provides for reader-based feedback follow from the following essential questions:
- What was happening to you, moment by moment, as you were reading the piece of writing?
- Summarize the writing: give your understanding of what it says or what happened in it.
- Make up some images for the writing and the transaction it creates with you.
While Peter Elbow is the author of over 10 books, as well as numerous articles which largely deal with writing theory and practice, few of his works have been as critical to his career as Writing Without Teachers (Oxford UP 1973) and Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (Oxford UP 1981).
Writing Without Teachers
Writing Without Teachers was Elbow’s first book about writing, and the one that has made his freewriting technique so popular as a pedagogical practice. In this book, Elbow uses two main metaphors. These are metaphors that reflect Elbow’s interest in letting one’s ideas develop and change throughout the writing process. The first is to see writing as growing. It must move through stages. The first stage is to generate words before a writer can continue to “grow” a piece of writing and move through the subsequent stages. In this section Elbow stresses that it is crucial to write as much as possible because the more a writer writes, not only does he have more to work with, but he also has more to throw away, allowing him to keep moving through the growing stages of writing. The second metaphor is to see writing as cooking, letting ideas simmer and bubble until they are ready to be used. In this metaphor, Elbow emphasizes interaction, particularly between writing and reiteration. According to Elbow, growing is transformation at the macro level, cooking is transformation at the micro level. Essentially, the writing lets his ideas simmer until he can use them to interact with his writing. Elbow suggests that writers spend sufficient time writing as well as stopping completely and reflecting on what the larger picture is meant to present. 
Also notable in Writing Without Teachers is Elbow’s proposition of the teacher-less writing class, which is the root of today’s writing groups. In these teacher-less writing classes, which meet at least once a week, all group members actively participate by contributing a piece of writing and reading each other's work. They discuss it with the goal of getting the writer to see not necessarily what is wrong or right with the piece, but instead what effect the writing has on the readers in the group, as opposed to one teacher’s opinion. This is also very similar to Writing Workshops, which are also currently popular pedagogical practices.
"The Believing Game"
“The Believing Game” is an appendix essay, where Elbow acknowledges the game of believing as a method that he applies to all his work. The essay defines the believing game in comparison to the doubting game - which is also more familiarly known as critical thinking. Elbow feels doubting and believing are two methods needed in order to examine and accept an idea as true.
The appendix to Writing Without Teachers has a section called "The Doubting and Believing Game: An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise.” Elbow started out simply trying to justify his “no arguing” rule for teacher less classes, but it developed into what really is the central theoretical foundation underlying all of his work. Elbow argues that Western conceptions of good thinking are based on the doubting game or critical thinking: A methodology that seeks to use a methodology of skeptical doubting to find flaws in thinking that might look good. Elbow argues that really good thinking also calls on a complementary methodology: conditionally trying to believe all ideas in order to find virtues in thinking that looks wrong.(He is NOT arguing against the doubting game or critical thinking; just asking for an additional methodology) Elbow has developed the believing game in a series of essays written throughout his career. His essay, “In Defense of Binary Thinking,” is also crucial in this theoretical work.
Writing With Power
Writing With Power was published in 1981 during an era where writing teachers were really starting to try to get a sense for what it meant to be a writer teaching writing. During this time, current-traditionalism was quite popular in handbooks for writers (Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, for example). This method presented writers with a very cut and dry sense of how to write. With the publication of Writing With Power, Peter Elbow broke the current-traditionalist mold. This book proffers various techniques for writers to try, finding one that best suits them. This book takes writers through the whole writing process from generating ideas (where freewriting once more makes an appearance) to revising and editing both alone and with others. Elbow goes on to address issues when writing to different kinds of audiences and also how to seek adequate feedback. It seems to be Elbow’s goal to show writers that there is more than just one “correct” way to involve oneself in the writing process. If writers learn to interact with their writing in these ways, they have learned to write with power.
The Elbow and Bartholomae debate
In the 1990s, Peter Elbow engaged in a public debate with David Bartholomae regarding the role of the writer, as well as that of an academic in undergraduate writing.[non-primary source needed] Bartholomae posits that Elbow “comes down on the side of credulity as the governing idea in the undergraduate writing course” whereas he, himself, expresses more skepticism.[non-primary source needed] The debate continued with these differing views: Elbow believes that writing belongs to the writer from the beginning; Bartholomae counters that he is more dismissive, not necessarily granting the writer her own presence. He believes that Elbow is too accepting while he, himself, thinks that the writer should prove himself first.
In his response, Elbow agrees with Bartholomae that training for academic writing should be a crucial part of an undergraduate’s career; however, Elbow says that this training can’t be completed in just one semester. Elbow says that perhaps one of their greatest differences is that Bartholomae believes the classroom to be a “‘real space, not an idealized utopian space’” (88). This implies to Elbow that Bartholomae believes that “a classroom cannot be utopian, and that utopian spaces are not real spaces” (88).
Another major aspect of the debate comes from the idea of writing without teachers, a concept that Bartholomae states doesn’t exist. Elbow cites diaries, letters, stories, poems, and so forth as ways that students write for themselves with no teachers involved. Elbow acknowledges that unequal power, however, is ubiquitous, and not just in writing, but believes that there is still plenty of writing being done for the students’ own enjoyment.
The debate has, over the years, helped to shape the understanding and teaching of composition theory,[according to whom?] especially in regards to how much power is granted the writer. It has also caused writers[who?] to consider audience in ways they may not have before. In the end, the two have essentially agreed to disagree, with Bartholomae saying that the writer should have the role of authorship to work towards, and Elbow maintaining that writers be accepted as writers from the beginning.
- Bartholomae, David. “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46:1 (1995): 62-71.
- Bartholomae, David and Peter Elbow. “Responses to Bartholomae and Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46:1 (1995): 84-92.
- Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” College Composition and Communication 46:1 (1995): 72-83.
- Elbow, Peter. Selected Works of Peter Elbow. Mar. 31, 2009. <http://works.bepress.com/peter_elbow/>.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1973,1998.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1981, 1998.
- Reynolds, Mark (Mar 1984). "Freewriting's Origin". The English Journal 73 (3): 81–2.
- Elbow Writing Without Teachers xiv
- Elbow Selected
- Elbow Writing Without Teachers xv-xvi
- Elbow Writing Without Teachers xvi-xvii
- Elbow, Peter. “Re: Hunter Students Adjusting Your Wikipedia Page.” Message to the author. Jan. 14, 2011. E-mail.
- Elbow Writing With Power 240.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1973, 1998.
- Elbow, Peter. "The Believing Game--Methodological Believing". Article. University of Massachusetts -Amherst. Retrieved 2011-05-05.
- Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford UP, 1981, 1998.
- Elbow "Being" 72)
- Bartholomae and Elbow 84
- Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. A Community of Writers: A Workshop Course in Writing. McGraw-Hill, 1989.
- Elbow, Peter and Pat Belanoff. Sharing and Responding. 3rd ed. McGraw Hill, 1999.
- Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.
- Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and With Others. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.
- Peter Elbow: A partial bibliography of his work
- Selected Works of Peter Elbow
- Peter Elbow Workshop Materials courtesy Marist College
- UMass Amherst Writing Program
- Elbow, Peter: The Doubting Game and the Believing Game