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Book of the Week: The Writer’s Workshop

Title: The Writer’s Workshop: Imitating Your Way To Better Writing
Author: Gregory L. Roper
Published by: ISI Books

My Thoughts:

I have always been moved by the idea that God gave us the gift of words, the very tool by which he created the universe. Is there anything more divine about humanity than the ability to create verbally, than the ability to use words to create entire worlds, to draw forth vast and unexpected emotion through people and places and events we created? Probably not. But, like Prometheus’ fire, this gift, this power, must be wielded carefully and with responsibility. For, as the Scriptures often remind us, words have the ability to wound as much as they do to heal. Therefore, he who wishes to write – to set the word into an everlasting tapestry of human creativity and communication – must understand that he is taking up a weapon that must be carried with great care, one that should not be taken lightly. Every word should be taken seriously. By presenting – and requiring imitation of – types of the highest quality, that is what this book teaches aspiring writers to do.

Through imitation of writers like Dickens, Aquinas, Joyce, Hemingway, and many others, the writer who takes up this book learns to identify what good writing looks like: how it sounds, what it feels like when it spills forth, and the way that every word, phrase, and image carries meaning (After all, how can one become a good writer if one can’t pick out good writing in a crowded room?).

Roper provides samples of excellent writing of all kinds (including fiction, essay, speech, etc.), then has the student re-write the sample in a similar fashion while applying the style and structure of the sample to their own subject matter. For example, in chapter one, Roper presents Charles Dickens’s description of Magwitch from Great Expectations. Then he briefly breaks down what makes this passage worthwhile. Then he asks the student to “try to describe [his/her] subject the way Dickens would have.” As a help, Roper offers a completed sample from one of his past students. This is the pattern the book follows throughout: passage, examination, completed sample, assignment.

With an emphasis on the skill of observation, the book begins with a series of exercises that teach the art of description, first of people, places, etc. in chapter one, followed by actions in chapter two. Later, it emphasizes topics of rhetoric like Definition and Authority, the arts of persuasion and negotiation, and much more. But most importantly this book reminds that every word matters, that great writers make careful, calculated choices when they set pen to paper, and that even the best writer can get better.

With tools for both student and teacher this book is an excellent tool for classroom or individual use. As students practice imitating the best not only do they become better writers but they are also forced to think deeply about the subjects and ideas about which the greats themselves wrote.

Highly recommended.


The Writer’s Workshop takes an approach to teaching writing that is new only because it is so old. Today, rhetoric and composition typically proceed by ignoring what was done for 2,500 years in Western education. Gregory Roper, on the other hand, helps students learn to write in the way the great writers of the past themselves learned: by carefully imitating masters of the craft, including Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Dickens, Sojourner Truth, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. By living in their workshops and apprenticing to these and other masters, apprentice writers—like apprentice musicians, painters, and blacksmiths of the past—will rapidly improve the complexity of their art and discover their own native voices.

Interspersed into chapters full of sound practical advice and challenging assignments are reflections on Great Ideas from “Realism and Impressionism” to “Nominalism and Modern Science.” Perfect for the college or even high school writing classroom—as well as a marvelous book for homeschoolers and others who would like to improve their own writing—The Writer’s Workshop is a fine practical guide, and Dr. Roper a friendly yet demanding teacher-mentor. – ISI

What the Critics Said:

“Gregory Roper shows that, for serious young writers, imitation can be the sincerest path to achievement.”
Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus

The Writer’s Workshop…is a complete-in-one-volume workshop instruction guide that can assist anyone from a home-schooled student, to a novice novelist, to an beginning playwright, to aspiring poet to write more effectively, fluently, engagingly, and successfully. Simply stated, [it] should be on the supplemental reading list of anyone wanting to successfully express themselves through the written word and should be considered a core acquisition for personal, professional, academic, and community library Writing Reference Studies collections.”
The Midwest Book Review

“Gregory Roper reminds us that good, memorable writing offers a rich, sensory experience for readers and requires complex, decision-laden activities for writers. Using the ancient technique of imitation, Roper leads writers into intimate relationships with texts as well as their own experience. In so doing, he demonstrates that lived reality deserves the respectful attention of the writer who purports to represent expierience of any kind of audiences of every variety.”
– Carol Rutz, Director, Writing Program, Carleton College


Read chapter one in PDF
Read the table of contents in PDF

About the Author:

Gregory L. Roper, is based in Irving, Texas, (University of Dallas) and from July 1st 2007 will be working in Rome, Italy. Roper is an English professor and director of the Writing Program at the University of Dallas, has taught courses in composition, literature, and various genres of writing at the University of Virginia, Ripon College, and Northwest Missouri State University. A medievalist by training, Dr. Roper has published on penitential manuals and their influence on late-medieval literature, including the Gawain poet and Chaucer, and has written poetry and prose for such general-interest magazines as First Things. His degrees come from the University of Dallas and the University of Virginia.

Get a Copy: From ISI

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