Teaching Shy Folk

by Katharine Ashe

There she sits on the first day of class. At the end of the row, close to the cinderblock wall, in the back. Not near the door where others might pass by, but in the corner, the one without windows. Her appearance is neat, her face intelligent, her desk tidy with books, notebook, laptop. She does not meet my eye. She does not speak to the others.
She is The Shy Student.

I have never been shy (except with boys upon whom I had secret crushes). Fifteen years ago when I started teaching college students, I had An Uncomfortable Awakening: not all students are loudmouths like me. Some students write gloriously beautiful prose but cannot string together an auditory phrase to save their lives — or their grades. And that, my friends, is the problem.

Before I explain, a wee bit o’ backstory.

I became a professor of history because

1) I love history


2) I believe that citizens of a democracy have an obligation to think critically upon matters of state and society. We learn critical thinking skills best by reading widely and discussing ideas with one another.

What does this have to do with The Shy Student?

And now for A Very Brief Foray Into (cue booming voice) HISTORY.

Back in Renaissance Italy, educated folks believed that knowledge should be for the greater good. A man might learn lots of nifty stuff, but more important than just the facts was wisdom. Specifically, the wisdom to know the best course of action to take in any situation. But what good was wisdom if you couldn’t share it? That’s where eloquence came in, the ability to convince other smarty-pants (who haven’t read and discussed as much as you) to accept your wise point of view.

Sapientia and eloquentia. Wisdom and eloquence.

See my problem now? What to do with The Shy Student who writes history so compelling it makes you weep with joy, but who clams up when it comes to talking about these ideas with her classmates? Eloquentia doesn’t serve society very well if you’re only talking to your laptop.

Many writers, of course, face similar troubles. Your novel is weep-worthy gorgeous but no one gets to enjoy it because you can’t make the social and professional connections necessary to get it read.

This is how I teach shy college students, and why it has something to do with writers seeking publication:

First, from day one I tell them my expectations: Their grade depends upon speaking in class. Their grade = your book contract. It is no secret in our industry that networking is crucial. I met my agent through a casual conversation at a conference with an author I barely knew. I signed with my publisher because of that powerhouse agent. This Story Is Real. If I hadn’t chatted with that author, I might not have a book release with my dream publisher this month (and two more next year).

Second, I forbid my Shy Students—especially the women—to apologize. I refuse to hear a single “I’m probably wrong” or “I don’t really know what I’m talking about” as they launch into a thoughtful, well-informed analysis of an ancient text. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens. Women are so darn well trained to devalue their knowledge and talents. I am astounded at how frequently I hear writers do this with their own work. No one will believe your writing is brilliant if you diss it all the time. Speak with confidence. Speak with the grace deep in your soul that is aching to surface. Speak because you love your characters and the story you have told. When others hear this, they will be convinced that they can love your work too. Eloquentia.

Finally, I assure my Shy Students that they needn’t worry about what their peers say in class. Those peers may sound smart. They may sound really smart. But they aren’t grading The Shy Student. I am. And I don’t expect her to sound like them. I expect her to sound like her, to have prepared the assignment and be on her toes creating magic right there in the classroom. I am not a chemistry professor; I don’t grade on a curve. If every one of my students sounds brilliant on any given day, they all get A’s. Editors and agents are like this. They want all their authors to be bestsellers, and they don’t expect you to write like someone else. They expect you to write like you. Don’t let the successes of other authors intimidate you into silence.

You are unique. You are the only one with your voice, your characters, your story. And you as an author are radiant, no matter what corner you stuff yourself into.

You deserve an A, too.

By the way, I also (in private) offer shy students a few tricks to help them participate more comfortably. Since RWA National is coming up, let’s talk conferences! What is the toughest thing for you about writers’ meetings, and what tricks do you use to overcome it?

Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern U.S. Please visit her at http://www.katharineashe.com/.


  1. Wonderful post! I'm a fellow Loud Mouth, so shyness isn't a problem, but writers need to keep in mind that agents and editors attend conferences TO MEET WRITERS! They are there to find new books. This is how they make money.

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I can't wait to read Swept Away by a Kiss! When is your book being released?

  2. I'm shy meeting people. Although I'm not shy about voicing my opinion. I did okay in my political science classes because I could sit in front and argue my opinion. Even though I prefer to sit in the back and just soak information up.

    But I don't know how to talk to strange people. I can sit next to someone and say hi but after that, I'm lost. This is the hard part of conference for me. Lunches and Dinners where you know no one at the table. I force myself to converse but it is hard. I tell myself it is only an hour and I can make it through.

  3. Thanks, Melinda! It's so true. Keeping in mind that you--the writer--are valued and desired is essential. Don't we believe that of the heroines we write, after all? Our heroes value and desire these women just as much as editors and agents value and desire us (well, you know what I mean about desire there, right?)! Once, the very wise and wonderful writer Mary Buckham, reminded me to make myself the hero of my own story. I've never forgotten that advice!

    SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS hits the shelves July 27. I'll be doing my first signing (ever!) at the Literacy Autographing at RWA's National Conference in Orlando the following day.

  4. Beth, you might not believe this, but I have the same challenge! Just because we're loud mouths in the classroom when we have something to argue doesn't mean we're naturals at chatting with strangers. At some point way back, though, I realized that one of the reasons I love reading and writing stories is because I love dipping into other people's lives--kind of like a voyeur but in a good way! Everybody has a story to tell, I mean they're own story. Or, with writers, the story they're writing. So I learned to forget about my nerves and instead ask the person sitting next to me at a luncheon or session about *them*, about the books they're writing, about whatever they felt like talking about! I've made so many good friends this way, people I admire and cherish. :)

  5. Oops! Okay, so I'm not an English professor, so I can get away with a big typo in the previous comment, right? ;}

  6. Katharine, thanks so much for being here today. I know your post will hit home for many of my readers, including me. That shy student you spoke of--wow, that is me for sure.

    Congrats on your upcoming book. Wish I could be there in Orlando to get a signed copy!

  7. Thanks for this post. I'm not shy about talking to people, but I tend to get wrapped up in my own thoughts and also I resist talking about myself, especially in a self-promoting kinda way. This is my first RomCon; I'm going to have to adjust my approach to the world today.

  8. Thanks for having me as a guest, Rebecca! I'm always amazed and impressed with shy folks who break out of their comfort zone. You do every week with this blog--wow! :)

  9. You're welcome, SueO! I wish you a wonderful RomCon experience, and many comfortable moments of self-promotion. :) If you want to brag about how great you did today with that, check back in with us later, okay? I'd love to hear about your success!

  10. My mom told me once that people used to think she was stuck up because she was so quiet, but it's just that she was shy. Since then I've tried to act less shy than I feel because I don't want people to think I'm stuck up!

    Great post-- especially like your point about not apologizing for your opinions, or analysis, or writing. If you don't love your writing, how can you expect an agent or an editor to love it?

  11. okay my comment didn't post :( Katherine: you should check out Sandy James workshop at National: Using Psychology to create real characters. She'd sort your shy students by gender. Men self sabotage - that way if they fail, they have an excuse if they fail. Women use defensive pessimism. We say, "Read this. It's not very good..." But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blah. Thanks for the inspiration. Glad I never had you for a prof LOL

  12. Great article...I'm sorta shy..really I am. I make myself go up to people and talk to them.

    It's just once I get started, I don't stop. I tend to ramble and then forget what I was talking about in the first place.

    Maybe, it's because I'm secretly a Brilliant Genius who suffers from ADD...yeah, I can see the eye rolls already!

    Anyway, I love the way you write, Katie, and can't wait to read you first novel...and the rest,too!

    But I find myself doing the same thing as what Margaret posted when asked about what I'm writing.

    And now I'm trying to write a Query letter. No worries though; I'm not starting out with:

    Dear Agent,

    I am the most ridiculous writer to ever have lived and have written the most idiotic piece of literature ever, too.
    Be impressed with that.


    Oh say can you see my rambling brain...

  13. Hi Katharine,
    So glad to see you here! Fantastic post.

    I'm guilty of the apology--I cringe when I do it--but it's because I hate arguing. When something is stated as a fact, it invites others to argue about whether it's a correct fact or not. You have to be prepared to defend yourself. When it's stated as my opinion, it's simply that.

    LOL - I'm the opposite of you. Quiet in classroom settings (for the most part), but I love small-talk and chatting. My husband and I play a game at parties. I tell him I can meet anyone in the room, strike up a conversation, and find common ground to talk about. I'm usually successful.

    How exciting that your book is almost out! I'm thrilled for you!

  14. I really like the way you stop people apologizing - that's SO important. I'm going to try it :)

  15. Sonja, isn't that just crazy how people can see shyness as snobbery? And isn't it lovely when we can learn something great from our moms? :)

    Wow, Margaret, I had no idea I was hip on psychological theory! ;) Thanks for putting me onto Sandy James's session--sounds fascinating. As for having me as a professor, LOL! But I do get lovely course evaluations at the end of the term from my shy students. I expect a lot from them, but I give them a lot of help getting there. Kind of like the publishing industry again! :)

  16. Margaret! So sweet of you to mention my RWA psychology workshop!! I'm so flattered! Thanks!!

  17. LOL, Marquita! But you'd be amazed, I think, to hear my women students when I call them on this apologizing (I always do this in the privacy of individual meetings, never in class, God forbid!). Nine out of ten don't even know they're doing it. I think the key is making it a habit to notice when you're doing it, then you can zip your lips before it's too late. And btw, I like people who babble. :)

    Jemi, I'm so glad you're going to try the no-apologizing thing! Graceful confidence in your radiance... :)

  18. Hi, Laurie! Fear of arguing definitely puts a damper on getting your ideas heard. Somehow we've got to dance that fine line between standing up for ourselves (like our work, and what we believe in) and respect for the values of others. It's a toughy. Fortunately when it comes to a book you've written and love and want to share with the world, it's all good news. :)

    I'm excited for your release of BONDED BY BLOOD in February! And I must thank you for putting me on to Rebecca's blog here. It's a wonderful place!

  19. Hi, Sandy. Best of luck with your workshop. It sounds fabulous!

  20. Aw, thanks for that, Katharine!

    You're welcome too. Yes, Becky does a great job. Even us non-shy types can find a lot of inspiration here.

    I just checked your website. Holy Cow! You're busy on your blog tour. What fun that Shy Writers is one of your first stops.

    And how fun that your first signing will be at RWA National! Yowza!

    Are any of the characters in SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS shy?

  21. LOL, Laurie. There's a skittish maid, but I'd say she's more terrified than shy--of pirates! My heroine, Lady Valerie Monroe, is a headstrong beauty. My hero, Lord Steven Ashford, an alpha to the core. So no shy types there. :)

    But my second book, CAPTURED BY A ROGUE LORD... Well, we'll wait on that. ;)

  22. Excellent post, Katharine. I fall into the shy group, but do my best at Nationals to talk with people.

    The hard part is when an agent or editor asks about what you write, and a few words into your pitch, you see her eyes glaze over. On one memorable occasion, an editor went into an explanation of why she hated my book after hearing all of five or six words from me. It took only one wrong word to cue her rant: twins. She hadn't a clue about plot or characters.

    That experience left me stumbling over words and sounding like an idiot. Fortunately, this experience was an exception. Most editors and agents are very nice to talk with. Thank goodness.

  23. Petrina, I feel your pain! Sometimes it's simply impossible to anticipate an agent or editor's response.

    Can I share an awful story with you too? At one RWA, I had a group pitch session with a Big Time editor. I mean, Big Time. Everybody always said to use your platform to your advantage, so when I introduced myself I said I wrote historical romance "and I'm also a professor of history." The editor looked at me graciously and said "Well I'll make sure to be on my best behavior." I nearly DIED! This was N.O.T. ideal.

    But I suppose we can never anticipate what will happen. We can only hope we'll be able to respond graciously at the moment it happens, even with a tied tongue!

  24. Katie ~~ Great post! I think many writers think of themselves as on the shy end of the scale simply because we tend to be people watchers - watching and chatting up strangers cane be a bit of a juggle but I think Laurie London hit on a great approach - treat networking like a game. Make a bet with a friend that the person who comes back every day with the most business cards of others WITH something specific noted about the person on the card - something they had to learn through conversation and not simply looking at them - they stand the other for a dessert or glass of wine later. The business is a game and it's fun to discover that! Cheers and again great post!! ~~ Mary B :-)

  25. Hmm,
    guess I better remember not to apologize or denigrate myself around you--I remember the pep talk you gave me the one time I did that. LOL.
    I keep having to remember that talk. It sticks--most of the time, but I tend to freeze up around new people for a little while, until I make myself step up.

  26. Qaey, you are a peach! (And I'm glad you called it a pep talk rather than a lecture!) I actually have to remember not to do this too, still, after years of practice. Some things are hardwired into our brains, or our culture, or I don't know... but we do it. :} Anyway, a writer with your devoted fan following is definitely doing things right!

  27. You are so right about the importance of speaking up and making connections. Drat it!

    Truth to tell, my shyness makes me dread the RWA convention.

    Is there such a thing as starting line phobia? I think I have it. Because if people approach me, I'm fine. I easily express my interest in them and enjoy setting THEM at ease. I could address a crowd of 500 with poise and élan, and speaking up in class is a cinch--but walk up to an individual, between workshops, and start talking? Not going to happen.

    So if anybody reading this sees me in Orlando standing off to one side, looking uncomfortable, would you please come over and speak to me? I'll be eternally grateful.

  28. I will, Mary Margaret! :) But wow--500 people? I haven't yet had that many students in one classroom. That takes true courage.

    I'm so glad you stopped by today. The local B&N romance book club is reading SEALED WITH A RING this month, meeting next Wednesday to discuss. Your story is my weekend reading treat! Can't wait!

  29. Ooo, Mary Buckham -- If there's a glass of wine or dessert in it for the winner, I'll play Laurie's game with gusto! ;)

  30. Dang, wish I were going to Nationals because I'd play it with you all! Especially if dessert or wine is at stake.

  31. I go away for a couple of days with no internet connection and miss all the fun!

    Thanks so much, Katharine, for a fabulous post. And thanks everyone for stopping by.


  32. My biggest 'wall' at conferences like the annual RWA one is my feeling I may have nothing to add to a conversation. I have tried commenting in large groups and have been 'shot down' by one or more nasty people. My decision for success in such a situation? I plan this year to grab on to anyone I know and shadow them...fair warning!

  33. Nancy, I can say without hesitation that you always have something terrific to add to a conversation. It's astounding how perceptions (of ourselves or others) can differ so markedly. You see, the best advice I heard at last year's National Conference--that I've carried with me very seriously since--came from a conversation I had with you! It's so easy to remember the occasions when we've been shot down (because they're painful, ouch!) that oftentimes we don't even know it when we effect someone positively. :) So here is a belated thanks, a year late but nonetheless sincere!

    Becky, I hope your hiatus from the internet was lovely. Thanks again for this fun visit to your inspiring blog!