U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Trusted Guides

To my dismay, I have somehow lost a little pamphlet that has held an honored place on my bookshelves since my sophomore year of high school. (That’s…a long time.) I most certainly did not throw it away, but I can’t for the life of me find it anywhere.

If I recall correctly, the booklet cost me something like $1.35 – money I had to hand over to my English teacher before the end of the first week of classes. In return for this small fee, I received my own copy of Writing Papers: A Handbook for Students at Smith College (saddle-stapled, with a green cardstock binding).

That handbook was the only composition guide my teacher used in our class that year, and the only one she needed.  Really, she didn’t need a book at all in order to teach writing.  But she understood, it seems to me, that some of us needed a book in order to learn writing. Not a bulky book, not a wordy book, not an expensive book – we needed something brief and simple and concise, something practical and economical and unintimidating.

She explained that she required that we purchase our own composition handbook, rather than using a different textbook provided by the school, so that we would have a reference that we could keep and use as needed in future classes throughout high school and even through college.  But this was her sly way of telling us, See, writing is not that complicated. All the rules you need to know are right here in this little photocopied guidebook. You can do this.

That was a good lesson.  And that was a good handbook, too.

It still is a good handbook.   You can download a .pdf of the most recent edition of Writing Papers from the website of Smith’s Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning.  It’s an excellent resource for students, and if you teach writing, you could build a course – or at least a major unit – on the processes and practical approaches outlined in this text.

Nevertheless, there are other ways to teach writing, and there are certainly other things to learn about writing and revision.  Last week I asked for suggestions from folks in my social media networks:  what style guides or handbooks do they recommend for their own students? If I could recommend a single book for my students to add to their reference library, a book that they could consult for questions of grammar but also turn to for help with stylistic issues, what should it be?  (I was careful to specify, “Not Strunk & White,” a book I would never inflict upon anybody.)

Together they came up with a promising starter-list, reproduced below, of writing guides and references that they have found helpful for themselves and/or their students.  I am familiar with several of these guides, but some of them are new to me.  Some of them are not an exact match for my query, but sometimes serendipity is the best guide of all.  Anyway, here’s a list of recommendations from my network of friends.

The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth
Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark
The Little, Brown Handbook, by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron
Fowler’s Modern English Usage, by Henry Watson Fowler (and, for the most recent editions, R.W. Birchfield)
The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, by Bryan A. Garner
They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing, by Michael Harvey
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
The Wadsworth Guide to Research, by Susan K. Miller-Cochran and Rochelle L. Rodrigo
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
Write to the Point, by Bill Stott
Stylish Academic Writing, by Helen Sword
Keys to Great Writing Revised and Expanded: Mastering the Elements of Composition and Revision, by Stephen Wilburs and Faith Sullivan
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams
On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Please feel free to add your own recommendations (or anathemas) in the comments.

As my own contribution to this list of trusted guides, I would add Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book I re-read at least once a year.  Lamott is good company, and for me her book is a refresher course of sorts, revisiting that crucial lesson my chain-smoking, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, no-excuses English teacher taught me way, way back in my sophomore year of high school:  You can manage this.

Sometimes I believe it.

I hope you will believe it too.  Whatever you have to write, you can manage this.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Lord have mercy. There’s a sentence in this post that I would edit the hell out of. (I know, I know: “Just one?”) Too late now.

    Received a couple of more recommendations to add:

    Accidence Will Happen: A Recovering Pedant’s Guide to English Language and Style, by Oliver Kamm

    Revising Prose, by Richard Lanham

  2. Since a couple of the listed books are research guides, I’ll add Thomas Mann, The Oxford Guide to Library Research (the hardcover ed. I have was published in 1998 but maybe there’s been a subsequent edition or two; don’t know offhand). The well-known Kate Turabian Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations might be a bit too focused on the technicalities of citation for this list, but worth mentioning anyway.

    I was handed at some point in college a mimeographed set of notes on research, reading, and writing by Barrington Moore, originally intended I think only for students in his own courses (btw, how many eminent scholars ever bothered to put together such a thing, even just for their own students?). I still have the very faded mimeograph and the advice is good, though the parts on research would need updating given when it was written.

    The tone of Strunk & White may leave something to be desired (“omit needless words” is good advice but probably shouldn’t be conveyed in the voice of God handing Moses the Ten Commandments); that said, I’m not as down on Strunk & White as you are, assuming one applies their basic message with some flexibility.

    • Fun discussion. Every generation has its own lists of vademecum. For those of us over a half century removed, Strunk and White were first.
      Two recent articles in New Yorker, one by Nell Freudenberger discusses some of the many facets of Lisa Randall who as a theoretical physicists writes well so that non scientists can follow.
      The other a nice review of Elizabeth Bishop, in Elizabeth and Alice. Bishop a renowned poet was relegated to teaching freshman composition. She noted that courses I. Writing were not so valuable. The task requires work and for a poet good ear

  3. Lora,
    I’m aware that some S-USIH colleagues (and others) consider my work to be of the “Rochester school” and therefore “Laschian-declensionist.” I’m not sure I agree, but in that spirit, my addition to your list is: Christopher Lasch, PLAIN STYLE: A GUIDE TO WRITTEN ENGLISH (ed. Stewart Weaver, U. Penn. Press, 2002). This is a posthumously published edition of a handbook Lasch wrote for his students. It’s pretty good.

  4. Louis, I might feel differently about Strunk and White if that book, and not Writing Papers, had turned out to be Dumbo’s magic feather for me, as it has for many fine writers. However, I came across it not as an apprentice writer, but as an apprentice historian. So it reads to me as very much of its mid-century moment — lots of appeals to the great writers, the masters of English prose, universal truths, etc, etc, and a magisterial tone that serves mostly to finesse the spots where the rules or principles being presented as axiomatic are far from settled and sometimes flat out wrong.

    On my Facebook thread about style guides, one of my friends posted a link to this piece from The Chronicle laying into Strunk & White: 50 years of Stupid Grammar Advice by Geoffrey Pullum. I don’t feel strongly enough about Strunk and White to call the book stupid. Pullum has more standing, and more at stake, in making such a charge — he’s the co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Of course, the Cambridge grammar is basically descriptive rather than prescriptive (or proscriptive), outlining the de facto rules that govern contemporary English usage, rather than presenting a list of rules that must be followed. So the Strunk and White recipe of not just prescription, but erroneous prescription, must stick in Pullum’s craw.

    I have not bought the Cambridge grammar. In terms of a complete reference grammar, I favor Quirk et. al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. I don’t recommend it to undergrads because it’s massive and expensive and can be overwhelming. But it’s an excellent and comprehensive analysis of how written English works, with plenty of illustrations, diagrams, and clarifying labels. It’s sort of like a Chilton’s manual for the language. I am fond of it, if only as a way of periodically assessing Everything I Am Doing Wrong. And still this jalopy runs.

    • L.D.,
      Thanks — well, I have no particular interest in defending Strunk & White on grammar. Reading the opening graphs of Pullum’s article, I see he calls S&W’s style advice harmless but useless. “Omit needless words” is, he says, useless advice, b/c if people knew which words were needless they wouldn’t write them. But Pullum ignores that their injunction is followed by examples of what to avoid (pp.23-25 in the third ed.). S&W, for instance, hate “the fact that” and say it should be removed from every sentence in which it appears. Probably too categorical but it is a specific example, and they also give others. Again, I don’t take it as a bible but I think there’s no harm having it around; however, I need to finish the Pullum column.

      • p.s. I don’t own a guide to English grammar along the lines of Quirk. Closest thing I have is Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, rarely consulted. I guess that means I have a (perhaps misplaced) confidence in my ear and instincts. I do use ordinary dictionaries, as everyone else probably does, but usually that’s not specifically in connection with grammar (though occasionally it might be).

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