Imagine a class of 20 students all sitting at their desks, heads bent to the task of writing. As their 20 pencils glide along, the words seem to spill effortlessly onto the page. But an air of unreality, of magic and hidden possibility attends this scene, for while the students are composing fluently, none of their writing appears before them on the page.
They are using the Invisible Writing Kit, a piece of carbon sandwiched between two pieces of paper wrapped in a sheath of plastic. The students write with pencil on the plastic cover, using a piece of lined paper underneath the cover as a guide. Since the plastic does not pick up the carbon from the pencil, the students do not see what they are writing. It appears, instead, on the piece of paper behind the carbon.
One might think that apprentice writers would reject or perhaps resist the idea of not being able to read their work or correct their mistakes while they are writing. In fact, they write easily, take the invisibility of the situation for granted and respond with apparent nonchalance. Even more important, the invisibility of their writing neither stops them nor slows them down, but increases their fluency.
And this is just the point. Most of us are well aware of the crippling effects of trying to revise or correct our writing while we compose. How easy it is, when we momentarily run out of things to say, for our eyes to wander back over our writing, looking for mistakes or listening for a more felicitous turn of phrase. For most of us, the temptation is so strong as to be almost irresistible and with disastrous results. Before we know it, we have become so distracted, that we are no longer composing but editing. All the curiosity, openness, attention, imagination, patience, understanding, memory, concentration, intuition, experience, and questioning we bring as learners to the activity of composing we have replaced with the spirit of criticism and correctness, being right or wrong.
Over the past ten years, universities and high schools throughout the English-speaking world have adopted computers as one of the principle new features of their writing classrooms. It is not unusual for many students to arrive at college now with significant computer literacy. It has become apparent to many writing teachers that one can darken the computer screen and compose “blindly”, so that it is impossible for writers to read over their work. This has become known as “blind” or “invisible” writing.
Research has shown that for most writers the practice of “blind” or “invisible” writing leads to dramatic increases in fluency and confidence. When one’s eyes can no longer look over one’s writing, the mind is free to roam more readily over one’s personal store of images. Moreover, students often remark that the images are clearer and stronger, since they are not tempted to look at the page.
Students have been struck by a similar awareness about their inner voices. With the screen darkened, they are no longer preoccupied with the exact content of the writing as it appears on the page. Apprentice writers can listen to their own inner speech more easily as it finds its way into their awareness. Moreover, this inner speech seems to be speaking more clearly and strongly.
The Invisible Writing Kit offers a way to bring this technology to students who are unable to buy computers and into the classroom where computers cannot be taken. It is an appropriate, lost-cost instrument which attempts to free students from their critical censors, the eyes and voices one hears over the shoulder, so to speak, constantly organizing, editing, revising, criticizing, or correcting, and ultimately getting in the way long before one’s original thoughts and feelings get down on the page. When students can temporarily put aside the conventions of their written language, along with such matters of correctness as grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, they are free to transcribe their inner speech and observe their inner pictures.
For several years, Bill Bernhardt and I had been using “blind” or “invisible” free writing on the computer with our own students in the City University of New York, both in our regular composition classes and with remedial students, who come to our classes having failed the university’s standardized reading and writing tests. We have also conducted workshops for both native and ESL writing teachers, to introduce them to the various advantages of “invisible” free writing for them and their students.
In the summer of 1989, we were invited by Fusako Allard, Director of The Center for Language and Intercultural Learning and by the Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT), both based in Osaka, to conduct two weekend-long workshops in creating greater fluency and confidence in writing. It is here where we first introduced the Invisible Writing Kit. Participants of both workshops included Japanese teachers of English on the high school and college levels and an international range of English-speaking persons.
At The Center Workshop, we asked participants to write freely with the Invisible Writing Kit. This was followed by writing the first draft of an essay or short story, which participants immediately revised and read in groups. At the JALT Workshop, participants first drew pictures to create a cartoon story, which they continued and expanded on the Invisible Writing Kit. They also tried the first draft of a more formal piece of writing, writing in English or Japanese. In both workshops, we followed Invisible Writing Kit activities with questions and discussion for participants to realize the possibilities of the instrument in developing their fluency and confidence as writers.
Over the course of the following academic year, we introduced the Invisible Writing Kit to our own students and colleagues, and at a number of citywide and national writing conferences. We have also created an INVISIBLE E-X-P-A-N-S-I-O-N KIT, which incorporates a variety of prompts we found ourselves using with our students, and an INVISIBLE JOURNAL KIT to increase fluency and confidence by tapping the most private and perhaps the strongest resources for most writers.
To each one of the writing activities in these kits, we incorporate feedback questions about the activity, so that students can become aware through class discussion immediately after their writing of the attributes, abilities, resources, and mental processes that contribute to their fluency. This discussion becomes the basis for students to change their perceptions about themselves and their habits as writers.
© Peter Miller
New York, November 1990
Each kit comes with “Notes to Teachers” explaining why and how the kit is useful, how to introduce the different writing activities to students, how to handle the feedback questions, how to use the kit in ESL and ELF classes, and so on. TheInvisible Writing Kit packet contains 25 sets. The INVISIBLE E-X-P-A-N-S-I-O-N KIT and the INVISIBLE JOURNAL KIT each contain 12 writing activities, which can be xeroxed for classroom use.
See the Une Education Pour Demain Catalogue.
The Science of Education in Questions – N° 4, Une Education Pour Demain, France. December 1990.
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 gmail.com
“The Invisible Writing Kit” by Peter Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.