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Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Learning from Professional Writers

Examine the way professional writers and their works can serve as mentors and models for young writers, helping them discover their own voice and style.

What can young writers learn from those who make their living through writing? Educators, researchers, and noted authors consider this question, offering innovative ways to bring the voice of the professional into the classroom. Teachers show how professional works by favorite writers can be the seeds for engaging classroom activities, while authors talk about their own writing processes and writing heroes. Maxine Hong Kingston, Patrick Jennings, Margo Jefferson, Christopher Meyers, Amy Tan, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, and Tracy Mack appear in this session’s video. Another noted author, Judith Ortiz Cofer, guides the teachers through an exercise triggered by a line from one of her favorite poets, Richard Hugo.

Key Points

“You have to take what inspires you about each writer and let the rest of it fall away.”

– Tracy Mack

This workshop focuses on what young writers can learn from authors who have succeeded in their professions through a variety of interfaces: reading and analyzing their works, listening to them talk about their work and the processes through which they created them, and reading about their ideas on what is important in writing.


These are the key points the teachers, educators, authors, and students consider:

  1. Professional writers follow the same processes in writing as do all writers. The steps may be prolonged or contracted, and followed in a random pattern. As writers are all individuals, so, too, are the patterns through which they create.
  2. Students can learn about not only the processes of writing, but the joy to be obtained through the processes, by looking at the works and words of prominent authors.
  3. Professional writers can inspire young writers to continue as they develop as writers.

Interested in building your skills as a writer? Try this activity, where you can participate along with others in a writing workshop led by celebrated author Judith Ortiz Cofer.

Things To Consider

“The real trick is to take just a little of advice from professional writers and really put it into practice in one’s own writing.”

– Lucy Calkins

  • Like all valuable classroom experiences, connecting young writers with professional authors requires forethought and planning. In addition to guiding students as they read their works, you may want to consider some of these suggestions to help you find ways to facilitate this connection.
  • Some teachers use mentor or mimic texts with their students to give them experience in trying on different voices and styles. In this kind of exercise, students are offered a model text and asked to imitate its structure and language, changing details to relate their own thoughts or experiences. Others feel that this technique, while valuable, has some limitations. Amy Tan, for example, said this in an interview for this project:

    “Know the difference between inspiration and imitation or intimidation. What you do, for example, when you read a book like Catcher in the Rye is that you’re infused with this excitement that maybe you can capture a part of your adolescence in the same way that J.D. Salinger can, but don’t write like J.D. Salinger, you know, find your own voice. You know you can write a story just as compelling as that as long as you find your own experiences and voice.”

    What do you think? Select the answer that most closely reflects your thinking.

    I believe that young writers should write in imitation of mentor texts as part of their experience in learning from professional writers.
    I believe that young writers should use mentor texts as an inspiration, but not as patterns to be imitated.
    I believe that young writers should have experiences in using mentor texts both as imitated patterns and also as inspiration for their work.

Transcripts and audio files of interviews with authors who are part of this workshop are available in the Additional Resources for this workshop


In the Classroom

“I want them to see that Amy Tan didn’t just sit down and poof, there’s the story.”

– Amy Tan

  • First lines of novels, stories, and plays often tell you a great deal about the reading experience ahead. Use this list of famous first lines to help your writers in many ways:
    • Analyze and discuss what is so captivating about these lines. How do they draw readers in? What generalities about writing an opening can be drawn from these examples?
    • What are some opening lines that intrigued your students in the works they read for pleasure? Why are they so successful? What can your students infer from this about their own writing?
    • Compare these lines with the runner-up in the 2003 Annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest, sponsored by San Jose State University, which honors the worst possible opening lines for a novel.

      The flock of geese flew overhead in a “V” formation – not in an old-fashioned-looking Times New Roman kind of a “V”, branched out slightly at the two opposite arms at the top of the “V”, nor in a more modern-looking, straight and crisp, linear Arial sort of “V” (although since they were flying, Arial might have been appropriate), but in a slightly asymmetric, tilting off-to-one-side sort of italicized Courier New-like”V” – and LaFonte knew that he was just the type of man to know the difference.

      John Dotson (U.S. Naval Officer), Arlington, VA

      This contest was named in honor of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who authored this Infamous opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    • Extend this activity to talk about opening lines in essays written to inform or persuade. What are some characteristics of opening lines that intrigue the reader? Find good and bad examples in newspapers, magazines, or essay collections.
  • Raphael Jesús González shared his thoughts on the connection between teachers and their students in his poem “A mis estudiantes/To My Students.” Perhaps you would like to share this work with your students, using it as an impetus for writing about the relationships in your writing community.
  • Although most writers dream of talking one-on-one with noted authors, this sometimes isn’t possible. Direct your students to interview each other as writers. Together, draw up a list of questions to be asked: How do they work? How do they feel about revision? What do they like to write about? How do they feel about their work? Pair or group students to conduct these interviews and then use the information to write an article, create a PowerPoint presentation, or construct a Web site focused on this author.

Suggestions for Bringing Writers into the Classroom

  • Consult universities and colleges within your area. Many may have talented writers on their staff who can agree to any of the following arrangements:
    • Visiting a class or series of classes for a one-day lecture/workshop.
    • Leading a mini-class (once a week/month) at a convenient time at your school.
    • Inviting students to attend a lecture or sit in on a class at their college or university.
    • Telementoring (through email) an individual student or group of students.
  • Universities and colleges often invite celebrated writers to lecture on their campus. Consult calendars from these institutions to find out when these appearances are scheduled or contact their public relations department. These events are usually open to the public and often presented without charge. If you would like your students to attend one of these lectures, you might want to contact the college or university. Sometimes other private events are scheduled around such an appearance, and you may be given an invitation to attend them as well.
    Other places where events like this are held include museums, libraries, and book stores.
  • Many cities and regions have coffee bars or cafes where open mike sessions allow a variety of artists to share their poems, stories, or plays. Consider a field trip to one of these venues. Perhaps your students would like to share their works as well.
  • Consider subscribing to magazines that feature good writing, checking them out at the library, or visiting their online editions. Some resources suggested by teachers featured in Developing Writers include Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, and Sports Illustrated (for its gusto and descriptions.) Ask your students what they are reading as well. Invite them to bring copies in for your review and potential use in writing discussions.
  • Many working authors have their own Web sites, or are featured parts of their publishers’ Web sites. This is a brief list of sites connected to some of the writers featured in this Developing Writers. The authors are listed in alphabetical order. A search engine such as Google can help you uncover other sites related to these writers.

Kevin Brooks
Search for materials on this author from the Barnes and Noble’s website.

Judith Ortiz Cofer
This author’s profile on 

Brock Haussamen
Tips on Teaching Grammar

Margo Jefferson
Search for Ms. Jefferson’s columns on the New York Times website; the site requires free registration.

Patrick Jennings
Search for materials about his author on Scholastic’s Web site.

Maxine Hong Kingston
The author’s profile on 

Tracy Mack
A Web site for her new book Birdland is billboarded as “coming soon” on Scholastic’s umbrella Web site.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn
This author’s Web site

Christopher Myers
Search for materials about his author on Scholastic’s Web site.

Amy Tan
A brief biography with links

Rebecca Wheeler
This author’s home page at Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia

Famous First Lines

  • “Call me Ishmael.”
    Moby Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville
  • “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”
    The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne
  • “A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over: ‘Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!'”
    The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
    The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
    “The Fall of the House of Usher,” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “On Friday, 12th June, I woke up at six o’clock and no wonder; it was my birthday.”
    The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
    1984 by George Orwell
  • “All children, except one, grow up.”
    Peter Pan by James Barrie
  • “They shoot the white girl first.”
    Paradise by Toni Morrison

Download PDF

Gonzalez' poem "A mis estudiantes"

Gonzalez’ poem “A mis estudiantes”

Permission to reprint the two versions of this poem was graciously given by the author.

A mis estudiantes

– Quisiera saber lo que dicen esas basuritas -*

Tarahumara analfabeta

Tú que sabes leer,

no lo tomes por supuesto;

tú que no sabes,

hay mundos, hay dioses

todavía por vivir en tus


Los mundos esperan formarse en tu


los dioses temblar en tus oídos.

Estas marquitas en la página,

negras como suciedad de mosca y

tan pequeñas,

te hablan – tú no las oyes.

No te puedo decir el comienzo

del nombramiento,

sólo como cambia y que


chispea y relumbra en la base

del cráneo.

No sé si haya respuesta;

tal vez sea suficiente nuestro decir.

Lo hombres, las mujeres

han muerto siempre


estas basuritas en la página

su último legado.

No las pierdas,

estas cenizas encantadas

de nuestros luceros.

© Rafael Jesús González 2004
(Metamorfosis, vol. III no. II vol. IV no. I; derechos reservados del autor)

To My Students

– Quisiera saber lo que dicen esas basuritas. –

tarahumara analfabeta

You who can read,

do not take it for granted;

you who cannot,

there are worlds, there are


yet to be quickened in your


The worlds await to form on your tongue,

the gods to tremble in your ears.

These little marks, black as fly-droppings

on the page, and as small,

speak to you – you do not hear.

I cannot tell you the beginning

of naming,

only how it changes and magic

sparks and sputters at the base of

the skull.

I do not know if there is answer;

perhaps our speaking is enough.

Men, women have died always


these small blemishes on the


their final legacy.

Do not lose them,

these the enchanted


of our stars.


© Rafael Jesús González 2004
(The Montserrat Review, Vol. I no. 1; author’s copyrights.)

*”I want to know what those little specks say.”

Additional Resources


“First there’s instruction and then imitation. From all that comes invention.”

– Margo Jefferson

Listen to:

  • In preparation for this project, we interviewed many noted authors. You can read and listen to excerpts from these interviews, featuring:
    • Amy Tan
    • Rafael Jesús González
    • Maxine Hong Kingston
    • Christopher Myers
    • Tracy Mack
    • Ruthanne Lum McCunn

On the Web:

  • Many states and institutions offer financial and logistical support to bring writers into the classroom. Scan this list to find programs in your area.
  • The New York Times Book section features many resources from authors, including “Writers on Writing,” a periodic feature that provides in-depth articles written by modern authors about their work and its processes. Here, in the column’s archives, authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Amy Tan reflect on their lives as authors. The site requires free registration.

In the Library:

  • Fletcher, Ralph. Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann , 1996.
  • Heard, Georgia. Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons To Find Your Way. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995.
  • Murray, Donald M. Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.
  • Murray, Donald M. Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1990.
  • Murray, Donald M. A Writer Teaches Writing: A Complete Revision2nd ed. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
  • Rule, Rebecca and Susan Wheeler, Creating the Story: Guides for Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

Amy Tan: The Benefits of Revision

Amy Tan

Amy Tan is a celebrated contemporary author whose recent works include The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. In an interview for this project, she talked about why she loves to revise her work. Her words can help young authors see the task ahead of them in a new light.


“Revision is something you either hate or you love, and it really has to do with your attitude about what revision means. I love to do revision. I revise probably a hundred times with everything that I do before it’s ever published, and that’s because every time I open my file and work on it, I’m revising everything that was done before. Revision is not failure. Revision doesn’t mean something is imperfect. Revision gives you second chances, fifth chances, eighth chances to look at something and do it from a different perspective, do it with a different voice. It is a way to play. You play with language when you revise. You get to look at all your sentences and say, ‘Is that really the best way that I want to say that?’ ‘Can I make it funnier or sadder or more compelling somehow?’ And so, revision is-for me–fun. I think that what students need to realize– and maybe it’s been engrained otherwise in them unfortunately at an earlier age–revision is not failure. Revision is an art. Most writers consider that something they enjoy doing. I don’t know of any writer, as a matter of fact, who’s published who ever writes it the first time, thinks it’s great, doesn’t go back to it ever again and just gets it published. That’s what you do with email when you press the button too fast and it goes off. But every writer who I know of– and we’re talking about writers who are Nobel Prize Laureates, who win all the prizes and write best sellers and all that– they revise and revise. They craft. That’s what crafting is. I think students might look at it also as more like sculpture. You get a big pile of stuff, and you have to begin shaping, and you say, ‘Yeah, that’s the figure I want. I want this bust of a young person here.’ But then after a while you think, ‘Well, what if I just made this a little bit more realistic on this side or more abstract on this side?’ You start playing with it again. And so you’re patting and shaping the whole time. That’s the difference between, say, the kind of craftsmanship with sculpture versus water color. Watercolor is very fast, and you do it and you don’t go back and do things over again. It’s set. Writing is more like sculpture.”

Rafael Jesús González: Thoughts on the Connections Between Writing and Teaching

Rafael Jesús González

In an interview for this project, poet and activist Raphael Jesús González talked about the differences and similarities between teaching and writing. His poems have appeared in In Praise of Fertile Land: An Anthology of Poetry, Parable, and Story and Mirrors Beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers.


” . . . all writing is teaching, but if we mean the classroom teaching kind of thing, there are two different kinds of, two different kind of teaching in many ways. It’s a driving, it’s essentially a monkish thing to do. We have to enclose ourselves in our space, to write. Even when we’re writing on the subway or in bars, we’re still creating that shield. It’s a very, very lonely process.

And teaching is not, teaching is a communal process. Or if it’s two, it’s still a community of two. There is much more of that encounter thing. So the difference is in the very action itself, the intimacy that occurs in teaching.

And teaching when everyone [unint.] and it’s very interesting, because I never really learned my art until I started teaching it, and then I had to really focus on my art, you know, it forced me to question very simply, you know, language and the things-that it was always a give and take kind of thing.”

Maxine Hong Kingston: Thoughts on Becoming a Writer

Maxine Hong Kingston

In an interview for this project, author Maxine Hong Kingston talked about the reasons she started writing and the stories that make her want to continue in this work. Some of Ms. Kingston’s recent works include Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts and China Men.


“I never made a decision to be a writer. It seems like the muse or writing itself chose me. And I seem to have been chosen for these particular stories, these poems, these words. And even this career. When I was in my 40s and 50s, there were times when I felt discouraged with writing and with my life. And I thought, what did I do? I let an eight year old decide that I was going to be a writer forever. So I have tried to escape at various times, but I never could.”

Interviewer: “What brought you back, do you think?”

“What brought me back to writing would be the � a compelling story. And it seemed as if there were voices of characters who called me or who kept speaking to me, until I would tell their story. But also some times when a story began to happen, I would be so joyful, and I’d feel so high and happy, then I keep going.

Interviewer: “Did you have a mentor, another person that you, you know, a writer that you found to be helpful, and how did that person help you?”

“I don’t feel that I had mentors, but I had great teachers, and I had … and I got to meet a real writer, when I was about 12. This writer was Howard Pease, and he comes from Stockton, and he wrote young adult adventure stories. And in his stories, he wrote about Stockton, and I could recognize the streets, and the buildings. And so, I could see with my own eyes, reality becoming word. And I got to meet him, and so I could see a real human being, who could accomplish this magic.

“The teachers were not mentors in the sense that they weren’t writers themselves, but they were the most amazing, caring, listening people, and they were able to give skills, and grammar and all of this technique that I loved.
. . .

“And those teachers were people who somehow made me feel that it was okay to show them my writing. I, as a child, my … the writing was secret, and when I wrote it, I had no desire to show it to anyone. But, for some reason, these teachers, I wanted to show it to them, and I wanted their praise, I wanted their feedback. I just wanted to see what reaction they had, as they read my work.”

Christopher Myers: Thoughts on Writers and Writing

Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers, a vibrant young author, shares his passion and profession with his father, Walter Dean Myers. Some of his most recent works include WingsBlack Cat, and Fly!. In an interview for this project, he talked about the ways he looks at writing and its various processes.


“Well, being that my father’s a writer, [Myers’s father is Walter Dean Myers, the prolific author] my first memories of good writing don’t come so much from reading those good writers, but seeing what the process of writing was about. Was seeing that writing was a lot more about discipline than it’s advertised to be on television. To see that to be a good writer, you have to write every day.

“And getting into the habit of writing as opposed to waiting for inspiration to hit you was more important to being a writer, to the existence of a writer, than living this life that somehow was inspirational. And so, I think that that was one of the first examples of good writing that I saw, was the habits of my father, a writer.

“After that, I’ve always been a reader. And so, the process of – I’ve always been a reader and there are several authors that come to mind, including Gabriela Mistral who was translated by Langston Hughes. Right now I’m really into this woman, Ann Carson who’s a poet. A lot of poets come to mind when I think of good writing, because there’s a conciseness to their language, ‘to the pointness’ about them that I think is really important for young writers to see.

“For young writers to understand that good writing is about getting across what they’re trying to say. It’s . . . so often when people teach writing to young writers, they focus on what the buzz words are of good writing. Detail. Scene. Setting. Descriptions. Adjectives. And often times they forget that writing is in essence about communication. And I think that that is a hallmark of all the writing I love, is that it communicates a point or an idea.”

Tracy Mack: Advice for Young Writers

Tracy Mack

Tracy Mack, a young author and former book editor, offered some salient words of advice for young writers during an interview for this project. Her recent works include Drawing Lessons, a Booklist Top Ten First Novel of 2000, and Birdland.


“One piece of advice I give young writers about writing is that it’s really important to let yourself write bad stuff. You have to write bad stuff before you get to the good stuff. And not to self edit. Or censor. Just to let yourself go. Because all good writing is re-writing.

“And that you need to give yourself time for a story to surface. It takes me, I’m not enormously prolific. I don’t publish a book a year or several books a year and it’s not just because I have a day job. It’s because it takes me a while to bring a story up. And I think that it’s important to honor that. And also to try to finish things. To follow them through. To see what this story is meant to be. Maybe it won’t be something to try to publish or show anybody else. But to try to complete things. And another friend of mine said, ‘You should never go back to old work. You know, once you’ve finished it, you should -‘ . I don’t know if I totally agree with that because sometimes I think there’s a character lingering that was around for some reason that might surface in another story.”
. . . .

“It’s interesting—My first book was about a young artist who was struggling through her parents’ separation and she’d been taught for years by her artist father. And when I finished, everybody wanted to know if it was my story. And had my parents separated? And had I lived through this? Was my father an artist?

“And it really had nothing to do with my life growing up. And in many ways, Birdland is much closer to my own personal experience, even though it’s about a boy. And it’s about a boy who’s lost his older brother. And in many ways, I felt that I had lost my oldest brother growing up because when I was about nine, he started using drugs. And it took him away from the family emotionally for many years. And I wanted to write about that. But, and so, I tried to write it from a girl’s point of view, you know, dealing with this very reckless, unpredictable older brother, and I just couldn’t find the voice. I worked on it for probably two years and it never felt right. And I realized after a while that I couldn’t separate the main characters’ experiences from my own. I couldn’t release the book to the realm of fiction.

“And it’s really important to do that. That’s another piece of advice I give to young writers is write what you know but change the details so that you can relinquish it to your imagination and it’s not just autobiographical. I think it’s much more difficult to write honestly about your own story.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn: On Writing

Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Noted author Ruthanne Lum McCunn shared her thoughts about her personal journey through the processes of writing in an interview for this project. Recent works by this writer include The Moon Pearl and Sole Survivor: A Story of Record Endurance at Sea.


“A lot of people say that it’s hard for them to go to their desk, I mean people say to me all the time, well, how do get motivated? How do you go to your desk? And to me, it’s a treat. Which is not to say that I don’t spend hours and hours in total anguish. I do. But it’s never hard for me to go to my desk. Never. I’m eager to go. And I’m eager to see what awaits, because, yes, I have my ideas of what I want to accomplish during that day. What I’m writing about. But, to me, the true joy of writing is when the subconscious takes over and stuff comes out of there. And so that’s really exciting, because I have no idea what it’s going to be.

“And if I did, it would be boring. There would be no reason to do it. And it’s like I taught for a while in the MFA program in creative writing and the director of the program wanted to have a, she said, you know it’s really taking the students too long to get to their final, you know, to get their final projects done, and so I think that they should be writing outlines.

“Well, writing outlines is a great idea for when you’re writing non-fiction, but it’s lethal for creative writing. And I said, you know, I would have to quit before I would – . I would never impose that on somebody. And so for me, it’s just very exciting to go to my desk and that’s how I get started.

“But there again, if I’m in a rough patch, it can be hard. And I, Hemingway, actually, had a story that he told about how he got started everyday, and that was he sharpened ten pencils. And at the end of the tenth pencil, he had to start. And so that’s what I do, too. If it’s really hard, I go to my desk, I want to get through that horrible part, so I’m motivated to get there.

“But then, there’s this horrible blank page facing me, what am I going to do? I sharpen ten pencils and then I’m ready to start.”