National Writing Project

E-Anthology Growing as an Online Writing and Response Forum

By: Larry Barton, Peter Booth, Shirley Brown, Cathie English, Frankie Mengeling
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 1
Date: 2005

Summary: The NWP E-Anthology is evolving into the online environment that everyone hoped it could be—a virtual community that assists participants in realizing their own visions for their writing.

 

Nearing eight years old, the National Writing Project E-Anthology is evolving into the online environment that everyone hoped it could be. Designed to introduce sites' new teacher-consultants to the national network of sites, the E-Anthology gives summer institute fellows the opportunity to post writing-in-progress and get collegial responses from a national readership. While the E-Team—made up of teachers-leaders from around the country and NWP staff—oversees the E-Anthology to ensure that all postings are read, the emphasis continues to be on cross-site responses. In other words, the E-Anthology—formally known as the E-Anthology: Summer Institute Writings and Conversations—seeks to build an online community of writers and responders.

Each year, more and more summer institute participants take advantage of this online community to help shape their initial drafts and refine their later drafts. Like the face-to-face writing groups at each site's summer institute, the E-Anthology provides a sounding-board for clarifying one's thinking and written expression, but, as an online community, it also offers a wider potential audience of responders. Additionally, for some writers, the degree of anonymity afforded can actually be more encouraging than those face-to-face encounters.

In 2004 the E-Anthology saw record numbers of original postings (2,764) and responses (9,594). Of the 185 local sites in the National Writing Project network, 104 registered to participate, bringing with them a grand total of 1,864 registered writers. With each passing year, both the E-Anthology's work and purpose find sharper definition. E-Team members now find it more useful to characterize the E-Anthology as a national writers' response group than simply as a publishing site. Although site directors and the E-Team members have always encouraged posters to participate in the full writing-responding-revising process, the push to do so is greater now. In the conviction that responding to writing is integral to the teaching of writing, everyone involved has become even more of an advocate for that full participation.

To encourage cross-site responses, some summer institutes' E-facilitators—the site's local liaison with the E-Anthology—request that summer institute fellows contribute at least two responses to other pieces of writing for every posting they make. Theoretically, this request could generate another 5,500 responses on top of E-Team contributions, yielding three or four responses per posting. Put in terms of chain-mail, the more responses each participant posts, the more each receives. And responses are not the end of the line as far as the E-Team is concerned; posters are encouraged to continue the dialogue with their responders.

"In a perfect world, the E-Anthology would be all about people discussing their writing, not just posting and seeing what happens," Peter Booth, a long-time member of the E-Team noted. "The E-Anthology is about public, multiperson dialogue. Seeing a dialogue about a piece of writing is very powerful, even if the piece you're reading about isn't your own."

Frankie Mengeling, another E-Team member, is equally interested in making responding as important as posting. "At the Fox Valley Writing Project in Wisconsin," she said, "we felt responding was so important that we did a short lesson on how to do it and even what to say. One teacher-consultant liked [the E-Anthology process] so much that she started an `anthology' blog for her own students."

What stands out in the thousands of postings and responses to the 2004 E-Anthology site is a sense of the immediate help available to writers.

Not everyone is as comfortable with technology as the new teacher-consultant that started her own E-Anthology blog, and the E-Team is acutely aware of the many tasks that new teacher-consultants are juggling in the intense summer institute. "It's a scary proposition for a `newbie,'" E-Team member Larry Barton wrote. "There's the whole technophobia thing to pile onto your writing insecurities. Many people are self-conscious about writing publicly, and some are experiencing the E-Anthology technology for the first time. We want participants to experience success, not to dread the process."

To help participants realize success, the E-Anthology guidelines for posting and responding require writers to indicate what they are looking for from responders. With a labeling system developed by Michelle Rogge-Gannon and others at the Dakota Writing Project (South Dakota), writers tag their work to signal the kind of response they want. A first-draft writer may solicit general encouragement only ("Bless"), while the writer of a more-finished piece might want specific, targeted criticism ("Address"). A third response, labeled "Press," (replacing the earlier "Shred" label) is the least-restrictive response category and is preferred by writers who want to speed up the process by moving directly into polishing. This last response is not for the faint of heart and is described by team members as "the hot sauce of responses." Responders to Press feel free to sift the piece for weaknesses in reasoning, in structure, in tone—wherever the piece seems to require shoring up or correcting—and to suggest possible alternatives.

E-Team members are a built-in panel of eager responders, ready to read the postings and respond appropriately. Important goals for the team are to model good response form and to stimulate further discussion of the writing. But the team's primary goal is to assist summer institute participants in realizing their own visions for their writing. Such visions may or may not include eventual publication beyond the E-Anthology for the pieces they've submitted. It's an individual call, especially since for many of these new writers, publishing on the E-Anthology is a first experience writing for a national audience.

Even revision is not demanded of E-Anthology participants, although many writers do revise and find the experience quite positive. In one example from this last year's E-Anthology, Amanda O'Riordan of the Plymouth Writing Project, New Hampshire, initially posted her story "The Bricklayer" at Open Mic—one of the four forums of the E-Anthology—on July 21. Her fable of a jilted husband shows the dissolution of his marriage and the ensuing sorrow through a metaphorical wall of bricks he builds in his front yard. Memories of the wife's coldness and indifference became bricks. "He had found one in his bed the time her rested body turned away. . . ." O'Riordan wrote, adding that "he subconsciously socked a memory of them into each one." At the end of the piece, her central character has met another woman who "insisted on coming home with him. . . .two sets of headlights meandered up his driveway."

E-Team member Shari Williams was one of the responders to O'Riordan's work. "I really like the way you frame the story around the bricklaying," Williams wrote. "It works so well, but you kind of fizzle it out in the end. . . .You seem to work at crafting the story until the last paragraph, and it just seems rushed somehow. Hope this helps."

Frankie Mengeling wrote, "I like your bricklayer. I like the fantastical bricks as metaphors of his life. This doesn't sound like the end, however."

"The Bricklayer" went through four revisions. In the final revision, O'Riordan explained in her author's note, "I'm looking specifically for feedback on the ending." She kept the detached distance that the unnamed, third-person protagonist gave the piece and kept the mysterious appearance of the brick. But she changed the ending to include the protagonist's tearing down the wall on his way to meet his date whereas the original version had a single brick fall: "Beams of light [from their headlights] shone through cracks and chasms, and captured the image of a crumbling mass."

To this Williams commented, "Now it is clear how the wall is coming down . . . when it started and how it progresses. I really don't think you need much more for the ending. I am left knowing that he is going to be all right now. . ." And Mengeling wrote: "This just gets better and better. . . .The ending is clearer without hitting the reader over the head."

While the piece may go through several more reworkings before the writer calls it finished, by July 25 O'Riordan had a significantly stronger story. She was able to take specific steps with her original idea as suggested by responses from other writers.

Gary Ellefson from the Great Basin Writing Project, Nevada, submitted his poem, "I Remember Yesterday," tracing his son's life from birth to maturity. In the original piece, posted at 9:16 a.m. on August 3, Ellefson wrote:

I remember now, yesterday you made the half-court buzzer beater.

No...That was sixteen years ago.

Ah, we took your picture in the tuxedo you wore to Prom, handsome.

No...That was thirteen years ago.

Responders Shelbie Witte and Claudia Swisher both encouraged Ellefson to add specific details to each of the two-line vignettes. Although he was reluctant to see himself as up to the effort, by 10:16 a.m. he had strengthened the original and modified the pacing of his poem:

I remember now, yesterday you made the half-court buzzer beater.

No...That was sixteen years ago.

I got to brag and say to everybody, "Whose kid is that?"

Ah, we took your picture in the tuxedo you wore to Prom, handsome.

No...That was thirteen years ago.

Your Mother had to help with the button studs; I was all thumbs.

What stands out in the thousands of postings and responses to the 2004 E-Anthology site is a sense of the immediate help available to writers. Postings were made around the clock, seven days a week, and writers seldom had to wait more than a few hours for feedback. Not all original postings were addressed by E-Team members themselves. In fact, many were not. But response and revision activities moved forward with a great deal of efficiency, enabling writers to advance the evolution of their writings quickly through many drafts. Many of these response-revision exchanges became elaborate dialogues, sometimes moving to private e-mail, as posters and responders made connections on shared personal experiences.

The E-Anthology and its influence is now beginning to spread both wide and deep. And with eight years of energy poured into the foundation of this endeavor, the E-Anthology now is taking off. This summer, make sure your site and your teacher-consultants have the opportunity to take part.

The 2005 E-Anthology will be open for E-facilitators to register their sites to participate on March 15, 2005. Learn more about the E-Anthology or for more information about signing up your site to participate this year.

About the Authors The authors of this article include Larry Barton, a teacher-consultant with the Red River Valley Writing Project, North Dakota; Peter Booth, a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project of Vermont; Shirley Brown, with the National Writing Project; Cathie English, a teacher-consultant with the Nebraska Writing Project; and Frankie Mengeling, co-director of the Fox Valley Writing Project, Wisconsin.

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