The “Dangerous” method of writing

Yellow trees
November 4, 2019
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I write fast.  It’s something that makes me effective as a high-school principal: I don’t stress or procrastinate or belabor reports.  I just write them, sometimes well, sometimes messily.  But I get ideas down on paper.  And later, I edit.   

This wasn’t always the case.  Years ago, I reached a point where writing felt almost paralyzing.  I had done a lot of writing in college: poetry, fiction, science writing, even winning a writing scholarship.  Yet several years after graduating from college and working as a high school English teacher, I felt stuck as a writer. I didn’t know how to start.

Then I took a course with the New York City Writing Project, an organization that supports public school teachers and writing in the classroom.  We read the book Writing with Power by Peter Elbow.  The book and the course changed my life. 

In the book, Peter Elbow talks about his own writing paralysis. He finally overcame it by allowing himself to write whatever came out of his head.  For Elbow, writing is most effective if it takes place in two phases: one is unfiltered, “get it all down” writing. The other phase is editing.  What stops most writers is that they do both writing and editing at the same time, creating a stop-start to the writing process in which the writer is judging what they write as they write it.  Elbow also calls this the “Dangerous Method,” to try to write a finished product on the first draft. 

Recently in my job as a high school principal, I was sent a list of 50 questions to answer about my school, as part of an evaluation.  I found the questions challenging: everything from how my school provides safety, to how we teach.  It seemed I should know every answer, but I had a very hard time articulating things that were second-nature. 

And, annoyingly, I had zero excuses: my entire school was out on a field trip. There were literally no kids or teachers in the school.  I had nothing to distract me.

At 1:00, I set a timer for 2 hours and told my assistant principals to come to my office at 3:00, and I would have the 50 questions done. 

I still found distractions: I “needed” to visit a colleague in her office, and I made coffee a few more times than necessary.  But I still wrote.  At points, my ideas flowed, while at other times, it felt choppy and awkward. I gave myself permission to “say it wrong” and just get the ideas on the page.

The strategy worked. When my assistant principals joined me at 3:00, I had 50 answers to 50 questions.  I started to read the answers aloud, and it was easy for my assistant principals to jump in and offer clarifications, or add ideas.  The generative work had been done. 

Over the years, I’ve learned more about producing without over-analyzing and editing, and setting time-limits to create a “game” out of creating.  It’s helped me write blogs, reports, articles, emails, and letters as if it’s no big deal.   I get clearer and clearer the less I judge my thoughts and ideas, and as a result, I often get it right on the first try. Without the pressure of the “Dangerous” Method.”

Photo credit: Jeffrey Zeldman, Creative Commons License.

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