Wordsmith: the Story

About 25 years ago I was in the middle of homeschooling two teenagers, my husband had quit his corporate job to start a business, and we were looking to move out of our comfortable middle-class neighborhood and into some place we could afford.  Our search was taking us farther and farther away from our friends, church, and town, and that was making me anxious.  Not earning enough to support the family and pay property taxes was making my husband anxious–though he’d cut the corporate strings with a nest egg saved up, it wasn’t enough.  (It never is.)  With one income stream after another pinching off or falling flat, he decided to write a book based on his industry expertise.

I decided to write one too.

It wasn’t my first.  I had a couple of unpublished novels under the bed and a handful of  articles published in small publications, including World Magazine.  That was my expertise: not only writing but teaching it.  Seven years earlier, when I dived into the cold waters of homeschooling, there wasn’t much out there in the way of writing curriculum.  Hard  to believe, to second- and third-generation parent educators attending their first huge conference or curriculum fair (The exhibit hall almost ate us alive!), but back in those days, young ‘uns, A Beka and Bob Jones wouldn’t even sell directly to homeschoolers.  If you wanted their books, you had to order through a Christian school.

I already knew how to write.  But teaching what you know is another matter.  The book that pushed me out of the starting gate was Harvey Wiener’s Any Child can Write, which I’m glad to see is still in print.  Wiener broke the process into steps for each kind of writing (such as descriptive or narrative) and assured students that they had plenty to write about just drawing from their own experience.  I drew from my own experience of teaching myself to write, adapted it to Wiener’s approach, and taught not only my own kids but others in our learning cooperative.  If I wrapped all that experience up in a tidy, self-teaching package, might it be something people would want to buy?

Those were the days of dot-matrix printers and sub-standard word-processing programs.  I had a program called Professional Write, which wasn’t very professional.  My husband, meanwhile, was writing his book on an early version of MS-Word, with a means of formatting that’s second-nature to most of us now but, as they say, counter-intuitive to me at the time.  I could only work on Wordsmith after his office hours, and the groans and growls coming the office in evening sometimes disturbed  the peace of the household.  We were both on edge, and at times he wondered aloud if I might be doing something more productive, and if the project would make enough return for the cost.  Then we’d fight over it.

Eventually, though, I hauled a stack of printed pages down to one of those quick-print places that no longer exist, ordered 100 collated, hole-punched copies, hand-drew a cover design, and loaded the pages into three-ring binders.  All this  just in time to take to the next homeschool conference, which happened to be just a few miles away.  I introduced the book at a packed workshop, and as soon as it was over I was stampeded by moms pushing money at me to purchase a copy.  True, they were all my friends, but that was just the boost I needed, especially since it more than covered the cost of printing. wordsmith 1 My husband started to think the project might be worthwhile after all.

Just a few months later, after we moved, I got a call from Susan Simpson, of Common Sense Press.  CSP was a startup publisher and their flagship product was an innovative grammar program called Learning Language Arts through Literature. LLAL lacked a creative writing component, and Wordsmith looked like just the ticket for rounding out their product line.  Would we be interested in co-publishing with them?  They would take over the printing, binding, advertising, and distributing, while I could buy the copies I needed at cost and sell them from home or at conferences. What a deal!  We jumped on it, and that fall Wordsmith came out with staple binding and a professionally-designed blue cover.

Soon I was working on the format for Wordsmith Apprentice  (published in 1995), a prep course for 4th and 5th-graders.  My son the artist, a fifteen-year-old comic enthusiast, added illustrations, particularly the full-page comic-book sequences that introduced each major concept.  (He also drew promotional items for me, including a life-sized cut-out of “the editor” that I would tape to a chair behind my exhibit table.  “He looks like your son,” said a fellow exhibitor at on of the conferences.  I’d never noticed, but she was right.)

Wordsmith Craftsman appeared in 1996, and starting in 2003 Common Sense Press published spiffy new editions of all three books.  They went through printing after printing, holding their own in an increasingly crowded field.  So much so that, after fourteen years, it’s time for a brand new


wordsmith 3

Okay, it looks somewhat similar to the second edition on the outside.  Here’s what’s new:

  • updated informationself-portrait
  • clearer examples (and more of them)
  • expanded revision section and revision examples
  • evaluation quiz
  • a “How to Blog” section
  • an expanded “Getting into Print” section in the Teacher’s Guide*
  • and, illustrations!

My son-the-artist is now a professional illustrator and caricature artist.  It’s nice to have skills within the family you lay guilt trips on (“Remember all those birthdays you forgot??”)

I still get testimonials from parents of reluctant writers who bloomed with Wordsmith.  Is it for everybody?  Well, hardly anything is, but I’m delighted to see it still fills that writing gap after all these years.

Click here for Wordsmith sample lesson, testimonials, and scope-and-sequence links.  It’s not just for homeschoolers, though–lots of classroom teachers have used it as a supplement or backbone of their creative writing program.    If you’re casting around for a program to use next year, please take a few minutes to check it out.  And watch for Third Editions of Apprentice and Craftsman next year.


*Even though Wordsmith it written to be self-directed, the Teacher’s Guide provides a little extra support and assurance for parents who feel weak in this area.


2 thoughts on “Wordsmith: the Story

  1. Janie,
    I love this article because I learned more about you and it is so interesting. I want to know if Doug finished his book? Thank you for sharing. I so wish you lived closer and we could get together for coffee and some serious talks more often. If only I could talk Bob into moving closer to you.
    I am sharing this.

    Love you,

  2. A “fan” testimonial–we love Wordsmith Apprentice and it will be fun to see a new edition of that come out. But thanks for getting Wordsmith ready in time for us to benefit from the new edition when we finish with Apprentice! 🙂

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