writing workshop

Steering the Craft: Review + Giveaway

“The sound of the language is where it all begins.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

A while back, I encountered Ursula K. Le Guin’s book Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. For those who may not be familiar, Ursula K. Le Guin was one of the foremost science fiction writers in American history. Her best-known titles include The Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness. Now this, I thought, is a woman I could learn something about writing from.

A fellow writer and storyteller suggested I read Steering the Craft, so I picked up a copy. I figured it would be fun to toy around with my own writing. What I discovered was a wealth of guidance and structured practice that can improve skills from the youngest writers to the most experienced of us. To have a writing resource that has something in it for all ages is truly rare and worth sharing.

And…Steering the CRAFT?
You’ve just got to love the wordplay in the title…

Steering the Craft is divided into several sections, including The Sound of Writing, Punctuation and Grammar, and Point of View and Voice. Each section follows a predictable structure:

  • Explanation of writing concept
  • Examples and mentor text
  • Exercises to improve that area of writing
  • Suggestions for critique and reflection

All of this, of course, is presented to us lucky readers in Le Guin’s clear, concise voice. At first, I wanted to read through the entire book before attempting any of the exercises. When it came down to it, however, I was too excited to wait. I just had to put Le Guin’s guidance to work, and I began experimenting from the outset. 

One of my favorite activities was the “Short and Long” exercise (pictured below). 

I spent quite a bit of time on this exercise simply because it was so much fun to do. For controlling the pace and power of writing, sentence length is one of the most accessible to learn and simplest to use. I was even able to introduce this concept to third-grade writers. We rewrote fairy tales of our own choosing using short or long sentences (I did allow for sentence fragments). Having a set story helped kids focus on the skill itself before they transferred it to their own writing. And wouldn’t you know, they found just as much joy with this exercise as I did!

Another activity that held a great deal of power for both me and my students was the “Telling it Slant” activity, in which the whole story is revealed through dialogue:

“Telling it Slant” has so much potential for creativity across the ages. Young children could easily craft and record stories using pencil-and-sticky-note “puppets,” while older students can use this form to dig into the power of subtlety and inference. For those of us looking for activities to reinforce the “show, not tell” aspect of narration, this exercise offers a concrete way to get there.

As the book progresses, Le Guin’s instruction and activities get increasingly academic, especially when she delves into forms of narrative structure and point of view. Still, her writing is vivid and precise, so that even those who don’t completely understand the technical underpinnings can give these exercises a try and improve their writing. 

I should note that Le Guin goes into a “not-safe-for-work” rant about a certain expletive that’s often used as a verb, an adjective, or an adverb. Other than that, most passages in the book are suitable for read-aloud and sharing across the grades.

Now that I’ve taken myself through the book and introduced my students to several of the exercises, I can see other ways to incorporate Le Guin’s teachings into my instruction. To begin with, there is a wealth of mentor texts from quality literature. I plan on using those excerpts to inform both my reading and writing instruction. I’d also bring her advice on critiquing the exercises to peer writing groups. I will need to simplify the language in that section to be more developmentally appropriate for middle-grade elementary students, but I think there’s something to be said for reflecting on our experiments with craft. Was it fun to do? Does it help my reader, or make my writing more powerful?

Here’s what I’d say about Steering the Craft. If you’re looking to offer a gift to yourself as a writer, I highly recommend this book. Le Guin’s exercises offer a range of prompts that allow you to strengthen familiar writing muscles and push yourself to develop new ones. 

If you are looking for ways to enhance writing with your students, Steering the Craft helps writers of any age develop both an appreciation for the tools of writing and the chance to practice using those tools in a clear, understandable fashion. 

Either way, it’s a win-win.

Want to win a copy of Steering the Craft? Leave a comment below to enter!

Giveaway Information

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin, please leave a comment about this post by Thursday, November 18 at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Lainie Levin will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, November 26. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Lainie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Lainie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – LE GUIN. Please respond to Lainie’s  e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Update: Congratulations to Courtney Heeren, who was randomly selected from our commenters to receive a copy of Steering the Craft from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments and insights!

32 thoughts on “Steering the Craft: Review + Giveaway

      1. Sure! Off the top of my head, Gail Carson Levine has two wonderful books on writing accessible to a wide audience which always make me feel like I’m having a conversation with her as I read.


  1. A new resource for the craft of writing is exciting to me and one that I can use with students, too! Thanks for introducing this book to me. What a wealth of service to our own writing as we mentor students! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As I read the exercises, I found myself feeling anxious, almost intimidated. I take these feelings as sign that I need to push my writing and myself out of my comfort zone. This book and these exercises will definitely help me do that. Thank you for the chance to win it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so very welcome! Yes, some of the exercises seemed intimidating or out-of-reach at first. If the quality of your blog is any indication, though, I think you’re MORE than up to the challenge!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love that there are not only exercises (love this term when it comes to writing) but also mentor texts to inspire and influence. Looking forward to this book!


  4. Thank you so much for recommending a text that will not only improve my teaching, but my own writing as well! I’m excited to try out some of the strategies you mentioned in the blog.


  5. Ursulla LeGuin is one of my favorite writers, not sure why I had not come across this book by now! Improving my own writing can always help with my writing instruction as well. Great post!


  6. I love your review! I am glad to hear that there are actual practice steps you can do. I find that many authors who are at her level don’t include things like that in their books on writing. So this is definitely one I will add to my list!


  7. You’ve inspired me to get a hold of a book to work on my writing craft this-coming year. Working on our craft is something we should constantly be pushing ourselves to do. I’ve done a lot of reading during the pandemic, but much less writing than usual. Thanks for the nudge to write some more.

    Obviously, if my commenter number gets picked when you do the giveaway, please pick someone else. I know I could’ve texted you this, but I wanted to make my declaration to push myself as a writer in a more “public” way.


    1. Thanks, Stacey! I agree with you about the need to write for ourselves, and I see it more as I get further into my own writing. As we work to refine our own craft, it allows us the perspective of what it takes to do it – which brings us both improvement and “street cred” with our student writers. I’m so glad the book inspires you. It certainly inspired me!


  8. I am currently working through Kate Messner’s 59 Reasons to write, and Steering the Craft sounds like it would be a complementary follow up title. Thank you so much for sharing about this text and some examples that we can process through as writers and teachers of writing!


    1. I haven’t heard of that resource yet, Kallie. I will have to take a look at that one. I’m always up for something that would push me or my students!


    1. You’re quite welcome! Yes, both the “short-long” and the “tell it slant” activities are some of the most accessible ways to experiment around with writing. I hope they serve you well!


    1. Catwings! Yes! Believe it or not, that was my first exposure to Le Guin’s writing when I was in college, studying education. I still remember the mini-sized version I had. It fit so snugly into my hands – perfect for young readers!


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