National Writing Project

Book Review: Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out—Writing Lessons Inspired by Conversations with Leading Authors, by Laura Robb

By: Rus VanWestervelt
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Laura Robb's Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out redefines the genre of nonfiction writing, encouraging creativity and relevance for both the reader and the writer.

 

I don't have time for fun writing. . . . The writer is no longer important—just the writing. . . . It doesn't matter if they care about what they write, as long as they can communicate it clearly in forty-five minutes or less. . . .


Scholastic, 2004. $31.99; 336 pages.
ISBN 0-439-51368-5

These and other disparaging statements, uttered with frustration and resignation, greet me at the beginning of every workshop I offer in the teaching of creative nonfiction. We, as teachers, are being trained to instruct our students how to communicate effectively in a detached, cryptic manner that has little (if anything at all) to do with the writer. And, with the addition of the writing segment of the SAT, even greater pressure is being placed on teachers and students alike to look at writing as a means of pleasing hoop-holders instead of making even a subtle difference to an audience that extends beyond test readers and college admissions boards.

Indeed, this frustration is warranted. Teachers across the nation are abandoning their commitment to recursive, process writing and replacing it with repeated drills on how to write perfectly in under an hour, stay within the box, and never, ever color outside the lines. Ever-increasing pressure from the top demands that teachers do whatever is necessary to ensure rising test scores. "Whatever is necessary" usually translates to doing away with the very things that make reading and writing nonfiction interesting, passionate, alive. Don't bother reading the essayists, the biographers, the Thoreaus and the Angelous. Be rid of all writing and reading that matters and turn your focus to paragraph one, where you state your thesis clearly and with a strong point of view. Follow with three paragraphs with strong examples, and end with a summary statement that drives home your argument.

Set. Bump. Slam. Congratulations. You are a Writer.

Not really. We are teachers who are empowered to bring words on the page alive and stories in the hearts of our children to life. We may need to teach our students how to make a slam over the net when necessary, but we all know that they do this best if they are conditioned writers who know their process, their routine, their approach to embracing literature and creating prose that engages today's reader as much as those of the next generation. We all know that they do this best if they appreciate the importance of reading and of writing beyond the test, after the class ends, and in the years following graduation.

Laura Robb not only knows this firsthand, she has identified this urgency to re-energize our young writers in her new book Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out, a must-have for any teacher's collection of those few texts to keep at arm's reach throughout the year.

Robb recognizes that writing for standardized tests is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and we cannot ignore the necessity for our students to do well in these evaluations, regardless of what we may think of them. It is Robb's intention—one which I believe she fulfills admirably—to ignite young writers with a recognition of and appreciation for their own writing processes so that they may then apply those skills (on an as-needed basis) to the more prescriptive tasks required of them for assessments. She accomplishes this in a threefold manner: 1) redefining the genre of nonfiction writing in a way that encourages creativity and relevance to both the reader and the writer; 2) integrating the processes of established writers into the text and the minilessons so that students understand that the "league of writers" is not exclusive but open to us all; and 3) providing myriad student examples as models of writing-in-process to encourage risk taking and exploration of unconventional approaches to writing.

Simply put, Robb believes firmly that if we abandon our passion for reading and writing nonfiction to focus on getting near-perfect scores on standardized tests, we are contributing to the increasing indifference of a generation of writers who have been trained to believe that what they really think or believe, see, or feel is secondary to how well they can please a single reader who will slap a one-time high score for a job well done.

Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out is not one of those cover-to-cover reads that requires you to devote large blocks of time to understanding its content. Rather, Robb structures the chapters so that each stands alone and can be used on an as-needed basis, and every time I open it to a chapter I've referred to countless times before, I always end up discovering a new strategy or approach that I had not noticed.

Eight chapters focus on writing structures, strategies for each stage of the writing process, and understanding and connecting with various audiences. Within each chapter, Robb opens with "In Their Own Words," where established writers respond to questions relevant to that particular chapter. Where most writers abandon such quotes for the reader to ponder, Robb actually offers suggestions of how they can be used in the classroom. For example, in Chapter 5, "Part 1: From Paragraph to Essay," Robb asks writers Susan Bartoletti and Katherine Paterson how they narrow the scope of an essay topic. Bartoletti responds,

I make the topic as specific as possible. For instance, when I wrote the nonfiction photo essay, Growing Up in Coal Country, I narrowed the topic to child labor in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. Through preliminary research, I realized that the anthracite region and its people could serve as a microcosm for the study of industrialization, immigration, and labor throughout the United States. (144)

As a stand-alone quote, this packs a powerful punch to teachers of writing and demonstrates how a topic specific to Pennsylvania can be made relevant to readers anywhere in the country. Students, however, may never see that quote unless teachers take the time to integrate it into the lesson. Robb encourages teachers to do just that by reminding us that the words of these authors help break down the stereotypical attitudes of dry, boring nonfiction that is far from being relevant to students across the country.

I imagine these writers would be disheartened to know that a simplistic, old-fashioned attitude about essays versus fiction prevails in many schools. The thinking is, any student can learn to write decent, factual essays, but only the talented, creative students can write fiction. . . . These writers knit self and world together, intertwining memories, facts, opinions, insights, and storytelling into an astonishing weave. Their clear and disciplined thinking enables them to knit their strands in such a way that one isn't fully aware of the logic at work until an essay's end—and then the reader is knocked breathless by the power of it. (146)

Robb uses Bartoletti to remind us the definition of "essay" transcends the regurgitation of facts and serves as an extension of the author to "inform, persuade, offer an opinion, analyze, entertain, or reflect on a life experience," all from a personal point of view (147). By identifying the differences between these essays and writing assessment prompts, students can reclaim their right to use writing effectively for their purposes, where they retain control of the piece until they are ready to release it to their intended audience.

Following the "In Their Own Words" segment, Robb provides minilessons that the teacher can pull right from the text and use in the classroom immediately. She provides student samples at varying stages along the writing process; necessary definitions to terms such as structure, voice, and purpose; day-by-day strategies to use in writing workshops; criteria for evaluating student writing; and even effective ways to integrate relevant lessons in grammar that students find necessary and important to improve their writing.

Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out uses examples mostly from middle school classrooms, but the lessons are appropriate and adaptable to all grade levels and with students of all abilities. Robb merely shares the strategies that work in the middle grades and gives us the room to make them work in our own classrooms. She offers the tools we need to make nonfiction relevant to our students while preparing them for quick demonstrations of mastery on standardized tests.

Laura Robb understands that we don't have a lot of time to theorize, ponder, and reflect on how to reignite writing that makes a difference in our classrooms. She provides all of that in this one text, and for that we are grateful.

Add Nonfiction Writing: From the Inside Out to your teacher's toolbox and use it often. Your students will thank you, and so will their readers.

About the Author Rus Van Westervelt, a teacher-consultant with the Maryland Writing Project, teaches at Townsen University in Townsen Maryland. He is the prime mover behind Maryland Voices, a biannual journal designed and edited by Maryland high school students and devoted entirely to publishing creative nonfiction written by teens throughout the state.

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