Connecting Reading and Writing: Inkshedding-to-Learn

By Elizabeth Sargent, University of Alberta


The best writing and thinking comes when students carefully choose each word and painstakingly build each sentence structure, refusing to put anything down unless they know it's smart and is the best possible idea they could ever come up with, put in the best possible way.

The best writing comes when students write completely privately, for no audience at all, not even thinking of a possible future audience, writing for their own eyes only.

Everyone who teaches writing hates it and is exhausted by marking papers that depress them.

Everyone loves teaching writing and can hardly wait to pick up, read, and mark the next stack of papers.

Reading through the previous modules posted on this website, I'm struck by the complexity of what it is we do as writing teachers: we try to think through carefully the theoretical and practical implications of every step we take, from commenting on student papers productively, to setting up effective peer response groups (in the classroom or on-line), to mentoring new teachers, to setting up writing labs, to conferencing one-on-one with students, to fostering classroom discussion and oral presentation skills, to encouraging students to see their writing as a way to enter an ongoing conversation (to which they need to listen thoughtfully before they go on to argue and persuade, responsibly integrating other voices into their own), to helping students become aware of rhetorical choices at the sentence level. And of course, that list itself is a truncated one: I certainly felt--when I was teaching a "straightforward" (if there ever is such a thing) comp class in Oregon--that there was always way more to do in eleven weeks than I could ever possibly do if my first-year students were to become confident, effective writers not only in the academy but in their professional and personal lives.

Now that I'm teaching at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the first-year course has become even more complicated because it's also a literature course. Students need to be introduced to a particular field--the study of prose, poetry and drama written in English--as well as attempt to produce the kind of writing done in that field. While reading has always been an important part of the writing courses I've taught, the mandate to spend 30% of class instructional time on writing and the rest on literature has certainly forced me to change how I structure that first-year course.

On the other hand, one thing has not changed--I still use inkshedding regularly to help students grow both as readers and as writers.

Inkshedding is a Canadian term, developed in the early eighties by Jim Reither and Russ Hunt in an attempt to make freewriting into something "dialogically transactional" (Hunt 1-- ) for use not only in classrooms but at annual (since 1984) Inkshed conferences. In the most recent issue of Inkshed, Doug Brent clarifies the differences between freewriting and inkshedding:

Inkshedding is more transactional at its core. Although similar in form to freewriting, to the extent that it is produced quickly with little regard for the niceties of scholarly prose, inkshedding is different in that its reason for being is already audience. . . . Inkshedding is designed to be shared, first among the others sitting at the table who exchange the tattered bits of paper, mark them up, annotate them, write exclamation marks and "me too" in the margin, and later among the entire conference or classroom, whether by being edited and photocopied or merely by being stapled to the wall.

It is this on-the-wallness that marks a fundamental difference between inkshedding and freewriting. The purpose of inkshedding is to make sure that all voices are heard, in ways that are not possible in a group in which only one can speak at a time and the strongest and most confident voices are generally the ones that get to speak. Inkshedding takes advantage of the asynchronicity of text--the fact that all can write simultaneously, and . . . all can simultaneously read. (1-<> )

When students read each other's inksheds, the focus is to be on what is said rather than on how it is said: students are to read, understand, and answer to the content of the inkshed, not try to evaluate or improve the writing itself in any way. Hunt explains that "Reither came up with the word 'inkshed,' having found it in the Oxford English Dictionary . . . . a 'humourous' word, meaning 'the shedding or spilling of ink; consumption or waste of ink in writing'" Hunt 1). The OED provided examples from Marvell and Sterne, but Hunt and Reither liked Carlyle's use of the term best: "With no bloodshed . . . but with immense beershed and inkshed."

I didn't find out about what Reither and Hunt were up to until the early 90's, by which time I'd been doing a form of inkshedding in my classes for several years. My own practice, unlike theirs, had come into being not through careful theoretical reflection but desperation: in 1988 I had started a new teaching job, one that involved teaching 4 courses a term (12 courses per year, over three 11-week terms between September and June). Two of those courses each term were large sections of Introduction to Literature with 55-60 students in each section (the other two were sections of comp with 20 students in each). I had started out in the fall of 1988 requiring that each student in the large lit sections write a 15-minute freewrite in response to the assigned reading for each class. Even with Tuesday/Thursday classes, this meant I was collecting and reading 240 pieces of writing per week--and that wasn't even counting the writing I was assigning in my two comp classes! By the end of that fall term, I had barely slept and was more or less losing my mind.

Nevertheless, the required freewrites made such a difference in how the students learned and in the quality of class discussion that I was loathe to give them up, even though I knew I couldn't survive much longer if I continued to read them all myself. I never graded these freewrites--but I knew that it was important to the students that their freewrites be read and responded to with marginal comments. And there was the additional problem that I loved reading them--the hours would fly by as I immersed myself in the voices of my students, in the evidence of their minds at work as they encountered Flannery O'Connor or Sophocles or John Donne or Alice Munro or Zora Neale Hurston for the very first time. At MLA that December--discussing the situation with Peter Elbow and resisting his repeated suggestion that I continue to require the freewrites but simply not read them--I realized the depth of my commitment to focused, public freewriting. If no one else read these struggling first attempts at making sense of a story, poem, or play, how would my students ever know if their ideas made sense to anyone else or not? How else could their ideas be validated? Yes, private freewriting gives students a precious safety in which to play with words and thoughts, a place where their embryonic ideas can't be made fun of or criticized. But what can't be criticized also can't be praised.

Elbow, realizing I wasn't going to budge and growing somewhat frustrated, tossed off another idea which I immediately latched onto: "Well then, why not have them read each other's?"

Before classes started up again in January, I had devised an inkshed report form, introducing it to my classes during the first week--although, of course, I wasn't to use the word "inkshed" itself for another few years yet. I still tend to use the terms "freewriting" and "inkshedding" interchangeably (as I do in this posting), adding the modifier "private" to the former when I want to assure students that a particular piece of writing won't be collected or read by anyone. For me, in a classroom setting, private freewriting is the exception--not because I don't value it (I think students should do a lot of it, on their own), but because I think student writing improves dramatically when you create in students an intense desire for discussion but channel much of that discussion into written form. When writing marginalia on others' inksheds becomes, as one of my students put it, "talking onto the margins," even blocked and frightened writers begin to transfer more and more of the energy and voice and fluency of conversation into their writing.

Initially, of course, students had many questions about the new set up. Even though they were already used to freewriting in response to the reading assignments, they worried that they were being asked to play the teacher--to evaluate or correct what was being said or how it was being said. Others resisted having classmates read their rough writing--they had learned to trust that I wouldn't judge them on the basis of surface errors or a hastily sketched idea, but it took them a while to learn to trust their classmates in the same way. Further, some felt that only a teacher could make valuable comments on their writing.

The instructions I gave were fairly simple: don't read anyone else's inkshed until you've written your own first (I insisted that they take the same risk their peers had taken, of getting first puzzlements and reactions down about the reading); then read the collected inksheds, pointing to (by highlighting or underlining) passages that leap out at you, responding in the margins, not attacking what was said, but engaging with it--perhaps agreeing, perhaps raising important additional considerations, perhaps supplying an alternative viewpoint, but continuously helping the author of each inkshed see what their writing had made happen in someone else's head.1 I draw the analogy for my students with philosopher Eugene Gendlin's analysis of what it is we want from any conversation, written or spoken. We would be irritated if a listener or a reader simply repeated our own words back to us (giving us the same thing back) and we would be frustrated if they attempted to carry our words forward in a way that revealed they didn't understand our original statement at all (giving us merely something different)--in which case, we would stop them, insist on rephrasing what we'd said until they eventually did carry it forward in a way that revealed they had both heard it and understood it. This "carrying forward," Gendlin argues, is the essence of all meaningful conversation and by extension all meaningful intellectual work (284-85; also 41, 13).

The inkshed report writers, after attempting to "carry forward" the ideas of their group members by talking into the margins, were then to return to their own inkshed and write marginalia on it, as if they were someone else--since they had become, over the previous hour, a different person by virtue of the fact that they now had the contents of four to six other people's brains inside their own. This last step has always been the most difficult but, I argue, also the most important for students to make--the repeated practice of returning to comment on their own inkshed helps them begin to see their own writing with a bit of distance, to see it as someone else might see it.

Filling out the report form itself is always the shortest and least important part of the process, and I urge students to do it fairly quickly. When I collect and go through these forms and the accompanying inksheds, I always look first at the marginalia--the quantity and quality of it--then at the inkshed written by the report writer (with his or her comments added after reading all the others), and then at the report form. The inksheds and reports are not graded, but generally receive a check--occasionally a check minus for skimpy or careless work, a check plus for particularly rich and thoughtful work, or a zero if inksheds are turned in with no marginalia at all (in which case, the task has to be redone--especially if the report writer has not written marginalia on his or her own inkshed).

Daunting as the task seems to them at first, once they take their first turn at collecting, reading and commenting on the inksheds of their group members, most students are as hooked on reading these inksheds as I am. The inkshed reports themselves frequently contain startled reflections like these: "It's reassuring to discover that everyone else is as baffled by this poem as I am" or "It's amazing to see how differently six people can interpret one short story."

Whether students feel they understand the reading better than everyone else in their group (in which case they feel more confident than before) or whether they believe that everyone else understands the reading better than they do (in which case they feel enlightened by reading everyone else's freewrites), they enjoy the privilege of being able to see the written track of their colleagues' thinking. I usually share with them at the beginning of the term (with the permission of the puzzled student who produced it) a "mapping" of one student's frustration with studying and analyzing fiction --and find that the process of writing inkshed reports helps students confront their unspoken assumption that interpretations of texts are magically arrived at only by a privileged few (usually English teachers) with special powers or with access to secret sources. Instead, they begin to sense how interpretations are negotiated by groups of readers talking with each other over time, either on paper or out loud or both, testing their interpretations against the reactions and readings of others. Reading itself is no longer something you do all in one go, by running your eyes over a text, but something you do in stages, a reflective and active process: writing down your first impressions and thus leaving a physical record for yourself and others to trace later, reading the first impressions of others, asking questions about the similarities and differences in those early "readings," going back to the text to refute or support certain readings, and finally negotiating one or more interpretations as a group, interpretations that seem to make the most sense of the most details of a particular text.

One of the benefits of my having stumbled upon this process in the way I did was that I could compare the freewrites I had received that first term, written for my eyes only, to the ones students submitted subsequently, knowing that other students in their working group were going to be reading and responding to them. I had worried that the pressure of writing for a wider audience would lead many of them to hold back, to write in a stiffer way and to worry too much about sounding smart or about correcting all their spelling and usage errors. Instead, the opposite happened. In fact, while it seemed that some students had been willing to hand in to me any careless bit of tossed off emoting about the text, they were much less willing to waste their colleagues' time. Overall the freewrites students wrote for each other (still knowing that I'd be looking in on a random sampling of them every week) were much richer, livelier, and more focused on the text--and clearly written in a language natural to them, a voice accessible to the other students in the group. The pressure of audience, to say something meaningful to a particular group of people--a developing discourse community--had an important and beneficial effect on the writing.2

Students particularly like evidence of momentary slips, struggles with the freewrite genre itself; they often underline or highlight passages like this one (taken from a recent University of Alberta inkshed)--"Wait, that statement must sound awful--it sounded a lot better when I thought it, before my pen got ahold of it"--and frequently write encouraging words in the margin: "No, it makes perfect sense--I feel exactly the same way."3 A typed inkshed last week contained this line: "Oh no, I just lost my train of thought because I went back to correct a typo." The inkshed report writer wrote in the margin, "Shame on you!" along with a smiley face.

Others particularly like the freewriting mantras developed by some of their peers to keep the pen moving while their minds are on pause. I always share with my classes Robert Whitney's account of students panicking, hitting a freewriting wall after the first four or five minutes, their pens suddenly stopping. Whitney would ask "What are you thinking?" and the students, dismay on their faces, would reply "Nothing."

"Nothing begins with an N,'" was Whitney's reply; and then, after a pause, "You can write that down" (220).

So I ask my students simply to write "nothing, nothing, nothing" until something comes into their heads--at which point, their pens will be moving and ready to catch it. The creepiest freewriting mantra I've ever run across recurred in the freewrites of one young man for whom it always seemed to pay off, marking a meditative space after which his most memorable insights and most penetrating questions made their appearance--"deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper." One of my best students this term writes "monkey, monkey, monkey, monkey" for a line or two and then cuts loose with the next astonishing, attentive bit of reading.

Now, after more than a decade of looking at students' marginalia on each other's freewrites, I still notice how these meditative pauses seem to benefit the reader almost as much as the writer, pulling the reader of the freewrite immediately into the reality of the moment of writing, the moment when the author was struggling, perhaps late the night before, to think intensely about what he or she had just finished reading and finding it hard to put into words. Students highlight or underline these moments, perhaps putting an exclamation point next to them; but the traces of freewriting struggles do more than create a sense of camaraderie. They give permission to the reader to reveal such struggles in her own freewriting, to push herself to keep going, knowing that others in the group--far from being irritated or distracted by the evidence of difficulty in keeping the fingers moving on the keyboard or the pen moving on the page--will enjoy it. In fact, they'll benefit from the meditative break in their reading, a break which enables them to return after it to the writer's ideas with a stronger sense of the writer's presence there with them on the page. In other words, the shared inksheds serve another function besides deepening the reading and discussing that goes on in the literature class; they subtly encourage students to keep at the difficult and sustained practice of regular nonstop writing, a practice that has such valuable long-term benefits for their fluency and facility with writing (see Belanoff, Elbow, & Fontaine for further research on the theory and benefits of freewriting).

Obviously, I can't compare students' public freewrites to the kinds of freewrites they might have written if their responses had been allowed to be completely private--and I certainly have students complain that writing cannot be considered "free" if it has an assigned topic, forcing them to respond in some detailed way to a reading assignment, and if it has the constraint of an audience (while I never grade inksheds, I do refuse to count those that reveal no serious engagement with the reading). Repeatedly in class I have to distinguish what I'm doing from Elbow's definition of true freewriting. However, making this discrimination has become easier for me now that I can refer to Reither and Hunt's work and thus use an entirely different term, inkshedding, for the focused public freewriting-to-learn I ask my students to do. I can also refer students to the Inkshed website, especially to Russ Hunt's article there, "What is Inkshedding"?--and I always spend time discussing with students the theory behind both private freewriting and inkshedding so they understand why we're doing what we do in class.

I'm not arguing that inkshedding should replace private freewriting--in fact, I continue to build into my first-year classes repeated occasions for private writing (especially following Sondra Perl's composing guidelines) and for talking with students about why such writing should become a permanent part of their writing practice. The most recent Inkshed conference, featuring Elbow as a keynote speaker, concentrated on the differences between freewriting and inkshedding and the roles both can play in the teaching of writing. But I agree with both Doug Brent and Russ Hunt in their belief that continued inkshedding over the course of a term can help students become aware of the reality of writing for an audience in a way few other classroom writing experiences can and that the "the pressure of audience" (Hunt 1) has a definite effect on student writing. It's not just the pressure of audience, however, but also the pressure to focus on a shared subject, to say something substantive and specific about the assigned reading (Reither), that makes inkshedding such a useful tool in bridging the gap between students' often fluent and readable personal writing and their more crabbed and uncertain academic writing. Janet Emig, Toby Fulwiler, Art Young and others have helped us understand how such writing-to-learn in any field (and apparently, written in any genre, since Young has found poetry to be a surprisingly effective form of writing-to-learn--check out his earlier posting on this website -- deepens and extends learning. Emig, in particular, emphasizes how writing is a unique and powerful form of learning that we disregard at our peril--because it combines the particular strengths of speaking, listening and reading in one activity, originating and creating "a unique verbal construct that is graphically recorded" (Emig 123), using the hand, eye and brain all at once (and thus being simultaneously enactive, iconic and symbolic--125).

It is the "graphically recorded" element of inkshedding in particular that makes it such a remarkable learning tool in the literature and writing classroom. Now that I'm teaching a full-year course that combines writing and literature, although I'm aware of some losses in the more diffuse focus, I value in particular two things: the longer trajectory of a full year over which to see the growth in my students as readers and as writers and the chance to show students how to return to their inksheds in order to build more formal and polished pieces of writing. Chris Anderson (245) long ago noticed the discouraging fact that students often throw away the best things in their exploratory writing, assuming that we don't want to see the process of their thinking, but only the final results. They drop the liveliest, funniest, most provocative sentences and instead move into "themetalk" (or what Macrorie referred to, memorably, as "Engfish"). Once Anderson pointed this out, I realized where I wanted to focus my energies as a writing teacher--not on grading the final product and commenting in order to show students what was still missing and not working, but in reading lots of their early exploratory writing, marking the passages they should keep and build on, and writing bossy comments in the margin like "if this doesn't show up in your final draft, I'll shoot you" (I have to be careful when I say this in Canada, though, since my students know I'm from the U.S. and they can't help wondering if perhaps I do, in fact, know how to use a gun--so I hasten to add that I don't).

I can't say that this process works smoothly with all students; there's still the dynamic at work that Anderson comments on, students using a passage from their inkshedding but in the process of revising, editing all the life, immediacy and energy out of it. Or using the marked passage, but still not knowing how to build on it, how to integrate it into the rest of their research or their thinking, so that the one fluent passage full of heat contrasts markedly with the labored academic prose surrounding it. Nevertheless, each time I prevent something wonderful from being thrown away, each time I see such passages reappearing in a final paper, I know that the student has at least taken in the fact that academic writing isn't entirely the rigid, unbending genre they so often take it to be--and the fact that faculty might indeed be interested in seeing in formal papers evidence of a mind at work, struggling to figure something out, rather than pretending that the thesis statement and conclusion arrived fully understood, supported and proved from the beginning (cf. Elbow's "Shifting" 162-65; see my "Errors and Expectations" for further discussion of revision processes and the copyediting checklist I use in my classes.)

I still struggle with the workload of teaching in this way, mainly because I still find it hard not to get sucked into more of the inksheds each week than I should (for a sample set of lively inksheds I couldn't resist reading early this winter term, see Jocelyn's Inkshed Report--reprinted with permission from the students in Group #1, English 105, Winter Term 2002: note their quickness at picking up on and beginning to use some of my cryptic codes for marginal commentary, like "TMM" for "Tell me more").4 I've learned to assign only one inkshed per week (thus one inkshed report per week); in a class of 35, I'd usually have five groups of seven students each, meaning that I'd have five inkshed reports and five inksheds to read each week. It'd be easy to deal with those five in one hour if I didn't keep getting distracted: Kevin quotes one funny line from an inkshed and immediately I want to read the whole thing; or Robin mentions that someone tried out an unusual writing strategy, writing her entire response from the perspective of Stella Rondo in "Why I Live at the P.O," and I feel I have to read that one too (see Strategies for Writing-to-Learn).

Of course, I don't have to--I need to learn to trust that the students benefit from each other's comments (even if--perhaps even because--they respond to passages and ideas in the inksheds that I might ignore) and that they can survive without receiving comments from me every week. And I need to trust the fact that I have more than enough to bring to class discussion, enough to teach to and from, if I simply draw from the 5 inkshed reports themselves, sharing with the entire class the question group #2 wants answered or the most remarkable insight that group #4 came up with. The hardest part is just knowing that I'm always missing something. And not just the occasional worrying bit of confusion or breathtakingly smart or laugh-out-loud-funny sentence, but the cumulative impact of something precious and valuable and truly irresistible: the voices of all those bright, engaged, active minds encountering for the first time material I may be too familiar with to see afresh any more--until they give it back to me, week after week, in the written record of their brave first readings. And knowing that each time I read the full range of these voices, I come closer to believing that the lies I started with are lies, all except the last one--which these inksheds give me faith will one day be the commonly expected day-to-day reality for most of us who teach writing.

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1 Peter Elbow's phrase. While Elbow champions private freewriting, he also has argued from the beginning (Writing Without Teachers) that students need multiple audiences for their writing (not teachers only) and multiple kinds of audience and response (see "Map").

2 For earlier related discussions of this process, see my "Mapping" and "Peer Response."

3 Shereen Taylor gave me permission to use this line from her writing.

4 My comments on these inksheds were in green, Jocelyn's in blue--but scanning them in as color files made them incredibly long to download or send electronically. In general, Jocelyn prints and I use cursive. I also write notes on the inkshed reports to remind me what points to bring up in class. I ask permission from students at the beginning of term to use their names when I share imaginative, smart or funny bits from their inksheds by reading them out loud in class. Some students ask me not to mention their names, and I honor their requests. However, I don't give them the option to request that I not read strong passages out to the class since the inksheds are, after all, meant to be public. Usually about halfway through the term, once students trust that I'll never embarrass them by reading excerpts out loud as examples of weak writing or thinking, most decide they're comfortable having good work publicly attributed to them.