Your three best friends for writing in college


I’m fortunate enough to teach writing classes. These may not be the writing classes that every creative writer dreams about when imagining living like Truman Capote. They are introductory composition classes with, usually, college freshmen who would, usually, rather be anywhere else. But teaching writing always provides me with new challenges, even if sometimes that challenge is staying awake during grading binges.

College composition classes are aimed at one type of writing: the academic research essay. Keeping focused on this form is not easy. Most of us in English departments got here because we like to read or write fiction or, at least, creative non-fiction. In many ways, teaching academic composition is like being a soccer player coaching hockey. Sure, there are lots of similarities, but you’d rather be running around on nice grassy field. Still, as jobs go, short of being the celebrity author, teaching in a university is pretty dang great.

There are tons of tools available to the composition teacher and the writer. I’d like to recommend a few, and most of these are obvious. But just because they’re obvious, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth your attention. Don’t be a snob. Sometimes your best friends are those home-town, plain, simple folks. These three books–and they may not be sparkly, fresh, hidden gems–will be the best friends you’ve ever had. They’ll stick by and guide you long after those $80 text books have been sold back for the price of a Taco Bell gordita.

First, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style still holds the day. That book does what all of us want good writing to do: be concise and clear. Likewise, Stephen King’s On Writing is a gift for the creative writer. When it’s not offering practical advice, it’s giving support–building up writers to keep writing (no small task). I think it could help a few academic writers relax a bit, too.

One less-used book that does the same for academic writing that Elements does for general writing is Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing. I’m fortunate enough to supplement my fall courses with the text and look forward to seeing how students respond. It’s the book that every college student should read. Like Elements, it aims for clarity and concision. Like On Writing, it pops pompous balloons and encourages students to write well and simply. In other words, S&W, King, and Harvey all help people write–and write better. For a total price  under $30, those books are the best deal anywhere near a college campus. Plus, they’ll still be your friends long after you lose touch with your other college friends.

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