“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.
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!
- 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!
Mom of two, full-time teacher, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and holder of a very full plate