Peter Miller – The Freedom that Comes from Restricted Writing Using Words in Color

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It is perhaps a truism to say that restrictions lay at the heart of the writing process. For everyone and from the very beginning, learning how to write means, in part, learning to handle a formidable hierarchy of restrictions.

Regardless of one’s parent culture, one must sufficiently master the physical restrictions required to hold and manipulate a writing instrument in the appropriate manner. Whether it be with a brush moving vertically down a column or with a pen or pencil moving horizontally along a line in either direction, one needs a considerable apprenticeship to make the appropriate letters or shapes in the appropriate sizes, so that the physical act of writing becomes second nature and the results legible to oneself and others.

Along with the physical restrictions on learning how to write, the linguistic conventions of the language — its spelling, grammar and punctuation — present new challenges and restraints. The further we move along in our educational system, the greater and more complex are the restrictions that await us. Who has not been asked by a teacher at some point in their education, “What is your focus?” or been told to “narrow your subject”, in order to find the sensible boundaries of one’s thoughts. Indeed, doesn’t one ask oneself these questions each time we write in order to discover what it is we want to express?

Later, on the college level, one is required to negotiate even more formal aspects of writing, leading to a host of new restrictions. It is in teaching these new restrictions that many composition teachers spend much of their time and attention. Even the most casual survey of composition textbooks currently in circulation reveals how seriously the educational establishment takes the teaching of these restrictions. Such restrictions include those of structure (the word, the phrase, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph, the introduction, the thesis statement, the transitional sentence, the conclusion); restrictions of rhetorical mode (description, narration, argument, explanation, analysis, comparison) restrictions of form (a personal essay, an argument, a review, an explication de texte, a larger critical essay, a comparison, a research paper); restrictions governing conventions for citation and bibliography; restrictions of tone, style, and appropriate language; and finally, restrictions of time.

Responding perhaps to the pressures of these manifold restrictions, over the past twenty-five years a shift has occurred in composition theory and practice away from the view that what matters most in writing is a glisteningly perfect product which reveals a subtle mastery of the rules, regulations, and rhetorical modes. A new emphasis has emerged, which involves an awareness of the entire writing process, not just its products. It includes starting with the widest possible focus and only later narrowing the subject, and exploring the freedom and sanctity of private writing, journal keeping, and “free-writing”, as developed by Peter Elbow and others, which asks writers temporarily to put aside matters of structure, organization and correctness to keep the pen moving continuously to get their thoughts down on paper. This way to literacy is seen more through work on increasing one’s fluency, with a growing confidence of being able to put one’s thoughts and feelings into written form, than through the replication of the various models of the sentence, the paragraph, or the essay.

For some writers, the “free-writing” approach to fluency has been truly “freeing”, but not for all. Some find the “freedom” of “free-writing” a restriction in itself and are unable to compose fluently. Moreover, it can send a message that students know to be false, if not misleading, that conventions don’t really matter.

Instead of teaching writing as the mastery of a hierarchy of restrictions or as temporarily bypassing them in the interest of unfettered expression, one can take an altogether different approach by addressing oneself to several questions: “What restrictions can I put before my students as writers that would free them to produce the greatest amount of writing? What is the least I can do as a writing teacher to produce the greatest “yield” from my students, both in their writing and in their awareness of themselves as writers?” Seen in this way, restriction would paradoxically liberate apprentice writers rather than confine them. A final question one could ask is, “How would the Words in Color charts contribute to this enterprise?”

Caleb Gattegno - Words in Color Chart 3, 1978

Caleb Gattegno’s Words in Colour chart 3

The forms that restricted writing exercises would take in response to these questions would be virtually unlimited. To begin with, one is free to use as “prompts” all that is within the domain of the writer’s inner life — all wondering, doubting, thinking, judging, deciding, questioning, inward picturing, outward observing, talking to oneself, realizing, calculating, imagining, remembering, knowing, and feeling. A glance at the Words in Color charts presents the following words: think / doubt / laugh / worry / love / hate / cry / refuse / hope / seek / now / question / listen / believe / if / when / why / what / where / oh / to suggest just a few. From these words, one can create simple “prompts” or restricted writing phrases, such as: “I think that…”, “I doubt that…”, “I laugh when…”, “I worry about (that)…”, “I love (hate) it when…”, “I cry when…”, “I refuse to believe that…”, “I really believe that…”, “What if I…”, “When I was…”, “Oh, no! …” and so on.

To start students writing, one can easily combine these restricted writing “prompts” with certain features of “free-writing”, namely, the request to keep the pen moving continuously for a certain amount of time, the promise that their writing will remain private, and the acceptability of not telling the truth, that is, of creating stories. Given such delineaments, these restricted writing exercises characteristically open writers to the inner resources of memory, knowledge, experience, perception, intuition, feelings and imagination from which all writing springs. Moreover, the restrictions themselves both contain and free writers to explore these areas of their awareness.

Perhaps one the most extreme variants of this kind of restricted writing “prompt” would be to ask the students to pick just one word from the Words in Color charts about which to write, representing the “least one would offer”. Of course, one need not use Words in Color to proceed with this or other restricted writing activities, but since one can easily bring any single chart or all 20 charts to class, they afford a ready supply of words. Here, for example, is a short piece of writing on the self-selected word, Oh!:

“Oh! I love exclamations! Yeah! Do it! Wow! Infinite interpretations! Oh! can be happy, sad, angry. Oh! can be pleasure. Oh! can be pain. But Oh! is always change. Oh! is a beginning, a point of departure. Oh! I hate my job. Oh! I love to write. Oh! we’re in love. Oh! how sappy. Oh, no!! Oh! came to me immediately, not immediately. After I knew we had to choose one word, but before Peter said to think about it. I refused to think. I had my word. I’m reading Hamlet in Shakespeare class. Oh, man. Is Oh! all over the place. I never get sick of it, but if I were an actor, it would be hard to say. How do you not get contrived with Oh!? Oh! is like a physical thing. You feel it in your chest. Part grunt, part word. Basic. So Oh! always seems to be qualified. Oh! alone is powerful.”

Apart from the capacity to produce so much writing, an equally significant part of the “yield” is the students’ capacity to recognize what is truly fundamental about writing. One needs to ask: “What did you become aware of while you were writing?” and “What did you bring with you (inside you) in order to write?” By listening attentively to what students say and cultivating the answers over time, one can produce a growing array of awarenesses about the complexities of writing. Such awarenesses can come to include:

  • trusting and enjoying the abundance and speed of one’s mind
  • being and staying open, yield to the challenge, and give it one’s full attention knowing
  • that one can start anywhere and go anywhere
  • bringing one’s willingness, energy, interest and curiosity
  • trusting one’s intuition and perception and using them to help accomplish the task
  • picturing countless possibilities almost simultaneously
  • putting aside external and internal distractions
  • listening to various voices within oneself and carrying on an inner dialogue
  • suspending final judgement about the value of one’s writing
  • taking pleasure in exploring the pictures of one’s imagination
  • enjoying the pleasure of one’s own words and the sounds of the language
  • using one’s patience and persistence and giving the task the time it takes
  • seeing where one might have lost one’s way and returning to the task
  • asking oneself questions
  • being aware of one’s uniqueness and that of one’s writing
  • being aware that one is in a process that proceeds in time.

Over the course of a semester, students are able to develop a more complete and complex list of attributes, capacities, resources and behaviors that comprise their own “writing process” and return to it as a source of growth.

Once students appreciate that any single word can arouse many possibilities for writing, it becomes easier to use the charts as a means to create any number of writing “games” or activities. For instance, one can ask students to: write as many statements as possible using only one chart; write a story using as many words as possible that appear on two charts and as few other words as possible; write statements using words starting with the same sound but with different spellings; write “tongue-twisters”; write statements that contain the same shape(s) but that tell us to make different sounds; write a rhyming couplet using the words of two charts; find a word from one of the charts and see how many other words one can create from it.

One can impose even greater restrictions on the writing activity by limiting the number of charts and introducing an arbitrary form, such as a telegram. One may also need to say that writers are free to add letter(s) for plurals, third person singular or past tense endings, pronouns and other “small” words, or some punctuation in order to fulfill the assignment. Here are examples of some telegrams written in response to such a request, using chart fifteen, which contains the following words: “ear, hear, tear, theater, read, heard, read (past tense), eat, believe, sieve, friend, receipt, meant, seize, great, please, vein, gauge, pear, create, ocean, tear, pearl, their, means, break, anxiety, treasure, anxious, exaggerate, examination”:

  • Their friend believes treasures create great anxiety.
  • Hear anxiety, friend. Anxious examination, Please believe. No great exaggeration.
  • Please read examinations. Great anxiety. Break their heart. Tear treasure.
  • Please read examination. Friend anxious.
  • Great pearls. No exaggeration. Believe friend.
  • Please read and examine receipt. With great anxiety, my treasured pearls create theatrical read.
  • Heart torn like vein through sieve.
  • Ocean of treasure. No pearls.
  • Anxious friend seized by heart tear.

In most cases, writers respond similarly to the restrictions imposed by the Words in Color charts. Virtually everyone starts to write with little hesitation and, feeling they have something to say, keep going with relative ease and comfort. Despite restrictions, writers are free to explore their creativity and the contents of their own imagination. Because of the “game-like” activity, students can bring their interest, attention, curiosity and energy to the task and are willing to jump in, stay focused and concentrate. After students read and collectively display their telegrams, they are generally surprised by the amount and variety of words they were able to generate, by how little is required for them to express themselves and that the “yield” of the exercise is not in the “prompt”, but in them.

Finally, one can use the Words in Color charts to work on writing in any number of ways in conjunction with spelling, reading and language. For example, the teacher may ask students to come to the board and write as many words that come to mind containing the vowel sound /u/ (the leafy green color on the Fidel), as in to, too and two. As students continue to offer more and more words within each of the various spellings for the sound, (some of them possibly wrong), the teacher may stop the “game” at any point to ask students any number of questions about spelling, language, or what they are becoming aware of to play the “game”. For instance, it may not be readily apparent that there are twelve different spellings for the sound, that some spellings are more commonly used than others, or even that certain words share the same sound, say, lieutenant and pneumatic. After a sufficient “pool” of words has been created, one may then ask students to write sentences, telegrams or haiku poems (explained briefly, if necessary), using only the words in the “pool”. While one might expect the contrary, working within even greater restrictions of a particular sound and a particularly rigid poetic form seems to exhilarate students to compose with ease. Here are a few examples of haiku developed out of the word “pool” of /u/:

  1. The shoe, the one I
    choose to give you in lieu of
    a boot, is too blue.
  2. Two new, true-blue shoes
    choose whose to lose, whose to schmooze
    too loose for a goose.
  3. Some dude threw into
    the lieutenant’s window blue
    some soup, some soup, OO!

Implicit in the way students work on their writing with Words in Color is the way teachers use the charts to teach. The approach makes certain assumptions about students, writing and teaching. First, the teacher agrees to accept students where they are as people and as writers and to deal with them in the here and now. (It may be necessary at the start of the course to create a questionnaire which brings to light the habits, attitudes and feelings that students have about themselves as writers and to get a sample of their writing.) The teacher also considers the teaching of writing an on-going process that takes time and requires growing awareness. In this process, it is understood that mistakes are necessary and inevitable; consequently, perfection is neither demanded nor required. Finally, the Words in Color charts function to cultivate the student’s awareness of those inner capacities and reservoirs which promote the conviction essential to all writing that one has something to say and the means to say it.

This way of working as a writing teacher requires patience and time, the willingness to ask many questions, to allow students to reflect on what they have done and said, to listen carefully to what they say about themselves, to bring as few assumptions about “the writing process” into the discussion and to work empirically. In a number of his writings, Caleb Gattegno describes this kind of approach as “the subordination of teaching to learning”, and in his book What We Owe Children discusses how one works in this way in the teaching of reading, mathematics and the social sciences.

In our more immediate context of the Words in Color Charts, they can be seen as a rich and flexible instrument for restricted writing exercises, that paradoxically free the writer to compose fluently, focus attention on what is truly fundamental about the writing process and cultivate one’s awareness of those reservoirs of content from which all writing emerges.


Bill Bernhardt. Just Writing. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, Inc., 1977

Bernhardt, Bill and Miller, Peter. Becoming a Writer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

Bernhardt, Bill, Miller, Peter and Ortiz, Rose Katz. “Less is More: Applying Caleb Gattegno’s Words in Color to Language and Literacy Learning on the College Level”, in Theories of Learning: Teaching for Understanding and Creativity, Richard Kelder (ed.), Director, Institute for the Study of Post secondary Pedagogy, The School of Education, The State University of New York at New Paltz: 1994.

Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

____.Writing With Power: Techniques for mastering the writing process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Gattegno, Caleb. What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1970.

____.In the Beginning There Were No Words: The Universe of Babies. New York:Educational Solutions, 1973.

____.The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages. New York: Educational Solutions, 1976.

____.The Common Sense of Teaching Reading and Writing. New York: Educational Solutions, 1985.

____.The Science of Education Part 1: Theoretical Considerations. New York: Educational Solutions, 1987.

____.Know Your Children As They Are. New York: Educational Solutions, 1988.

© Peter Miller
College of Staten Island
City University of New York

The Science of Education in Questions, Une Education Pour Demain, France – No 15 – February 1997


For over 40 years, Peter Miller has been a teacher of writing and literature on the graduate and undergraduate level at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island. For 25 years, he worked with Rose Ortiz in her Freshman Workshop Program, helping many non-traditional, first generation college students bring their reading and writing skills up to college level.

In the 1980’s, he was co-editor with Bill Bernhardt of the national academic Journal of Basic Writing. Also, with Bill Bernhardt, he has presented at conferences and led writing workshops inspired by Caleb Gattegno in France, Japan and Brazil. With Bill Bernhardt and Peter Ross he was co-editor, for one issue a year, of the Une Education Pour Demain journal : The Science of Education in Questions /La Science de l’Education en Questions from 1993 to 1997.

For the past 10 years, he has been most active in the Writing Across the Curriculum movement, an attempt to infuse and integrate writing into all college courses at all levels, and with online instruction. With his wife, Gail, he lives in New York City and has 3 grown children and 4 step-children. Between them, they have eleven grandchildren. His entire professional career has been inspired by the pedagogic ideas of Caleb Gattegno.

Email: pmiller510 at

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“The Freedom that Comes from Restricted Writing Using Words in Color” by Peter Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.