August 18, 2013

Slice of PIE: Coaching Young Writers

I have been a science teacher for over 32 years and have never ONCE taught an English class.

Over the last 16 years, I’ve taught roughly fifty writing-to-get-published classes that were one or two weeks long, as well as something like 100 writing workshops in which I taught the finer points of writing like plot structure, dialogue, and flash-fiction writing.

Of the kids who participated, at the very least four of them have had something published that was highly visible. Of course with coaching young writers, it takes a village of coaches to shepherd one writer from their first story through to a serious publication.

I will be the first to confess that my methodology was more of the “what feels right” variety than any kind of rigid program. Over the years, my classes developed into a series of writing experiments in which I would have a classroom discussion about the form I wanted the kids to play with – poetry, essay, how-to, fiction, script, and flash fiction – the workshops would focus tightly on some particular aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy.

In all those years, my evaluation of the student’s writing was casual as well as visceral – I could tell a kid what I liked or didn’t like about a piece and that’s pretty much it. The hard part was then coaching them into REWRITING.

*whew* Rewrites are hard enough for ME to do, how do I motivate a kid to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite? Thus far, I haven’t except via exhortation.

#experience a shift in the timeline#

Two weekends ago, I was at a teeny-tiny speculative fiction convention called DiversiCon because their guest of honor was a science fiction writer I hold in the very highest esteem – Jack McDevitt. (

He was funny, thoughtful, kind, and insightful. I took copious notes whenever he held court and while he said much that was noteworthy, during a session on How To Sell Your Fiction, he said something that will change how I run the classes and workshops I teach from now on.

He said, “We underestimate our talents because of authorities...we are much better writers when we are confident.” To that end, when McDevitt was an English teacher for ten years and he graded papers, rather than mark what was wrong, he would underline or circle sentences, paragraphs, or pages with the intent of saying, “This is right – do more like this!”

Do you know what a paradigm shift is? By definition: “...according to Thomas Kuhn, in his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, [it is] a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science. ‘A paradigm is what members of a scientific community, and they alone, share’, [Kuhn says], ‘a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself’

Once a paradigm shift is complete, a scientist cannot, for example, reject [the paradigm]. In contrast, a critic in the humanities can choose to adopt an array of stances...which may be more or less fashionable during any given period but all regarded as legitimate…[However,] since the 1960s, the term has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events...though Kuhn himself restricted the use of the term to the hard sciences.” (

[Hmmm – the global warming community attempted a paradigm shift that sometimes appears to be unraveling...]

For me, I take the non-Kuhnian definition as my new methodology for commenting on the writing of young people. I’ll begin next summer when I teach the Writing To Get Published class – and Serious Writers Workshop if it happens again. I’ll make sure I update you all in August of 2014...

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