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.