Developed by Louise Dunlap
Writing for Public Policy and Planning
The process for group review of writing is highly structured to make the most of individual and collective insight. Its main purpose is to help writers extend and develop the thinking, style, and focus of the work they bring to the group, so it is best used with something you will rewrite. Ideally group size is five, and meetings are regularly scheduled commitments.
- PRELIMINARIES: Writer gives out copies of a brief (1-2 page) piece and briefly indicates:
- Who it’s for
- Is it part of a larger whole (what part)?
- Is this an early (rough) draft or something with a lot of work in it? (Optional: How do you feel about this version?)
- TWO READINGS: Writer reads piece aloud, then asks a reader to read it a second time aloud. Readers follow and make notes on their copies if they wish, preparing to answer the questions that follow.
- WRITER ASKS READERS: Writer asks the following questions, moving around the response circle to get an answer from each person before going on to the next question. Normally we move in the same order but start with a different person each time. During this process, the writer tires to be only a facilitator. (Encourage readers to say whatever they feel; don’t be tempted to answer back—you can respond later.) Readers should try to be very spontaneous and genuine and to mention feelings and associations, not just logical “thoughts.” Don’t hesitate to repeat or build on what another reader has said. Any reader is free to “pass” on any question without giving a reason. If there is time-pressure, the writer can leave one (different) reader out of the response circle on each question. Have fun! Let insight and synergy build!
- What WORDS and PHRASES stand out for you? (Repeat the 2-10 words or phrases that made the deepest impression. Work either from memory or from underlines, but do this very quickly and briefly. Any explanations can come out in question 3.)
- Give a quick SUMMARY from memory of what you feel the writer is saying. (This should be in your own words and organized in your own way.)
- Tell us the “STORY” of your reading process. (Here you can take more time to try to give the writer a detailed, blow-by-blow account of your feelings, associations, questions, or confusions as you read through the piece. Try to follow chronological order and let the writer know what words or sentences triggered the flow of reactions and associations. Try to avoid judgments and hidden inferences about what the writer meant or should do. Just identify how the words affected you. This material will be very rich, so try to dig deep and retrieve a “story” of your response that most readers are only dimly aware of. Elbow calls this “movies of the reader’s mind.”
- Give a METAPHOR for what the writing feels like to you. [Treat this question like a game you can play very “non-rationally” and let the metaphors come up from your less-conscious reactions to the piece. Examples: “a roller-coaster” (This suggests the writing had sudden ups and downs, but you don’t need to explain or translate in this way); “an ancient tapestry”; “a busy intersection with a broken stoplight.” These should refer to the style of the writing itself, rather than to the meaning.]
- READERS ASK WRITER: At last the writer gets to respond to everything s/he has been listening to, and to articulate his/her new level of thinking on the subject.
- How are you feeling about our feedback?
- Have we triggered any changes in your thinking? (i.e. What would you do differently in a subsequent draft? Can you articulate any new purposes here?)
- WRITER ASKS READERS: Now that you know what I’m really trying for, what suggestions, comments, questions, criticisms, etc. can you give me? (Here the discussion can take off on its own, in a more conventional way, as long as everyone gets a chance to speak and people are not getting on soapboxes, etc.
- A NOTE ON TIME: This process is time-intensive: It usually takes nearly an hour to do justice to one person’s short piece. It is useful to have a group timekeeper who takes responsibility for getting things going promptly, making sure about a third of the available time is left for the final two items, and getting the group to take a moment at the end of each session to discuss its own process (i.e. Did it work for us this time? What were the highest and best moments? How could we make it more effective?)
*This method for reviewing writing comes from Dunlap and her students’ adaptations of the model presented in Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power (Oxford: 1981).