About Writing: A Guide

Reviewed by Christine Zabala, Graduate Student, CU Boulder on 6/5/19, updated 7/1/19

Comprehensiveness rating: 2

The book definitely introduces a lot of content. In that sense, I think that the book is trying to be comprehensive in terms of what it takes to write a college level paper -- how to read sources critically, how to understand a prompt, how to organize, how to check for grammar errors, and how to revise. It feels like a very entry level overview of a lot of content on the topic. While the breadth of the review is sufficient, the depth into each of these topics is really lacking. This text is trying to cover too much ground in far too short of a textbook. It is appealing, and probably less daunting for students, that the textbook can be read quickly -- I read through all 135 pages in one day. The real problem is that, in order to do this, the text vastly oversimplifies things to keep the information condensed. For example, there are about 20 pages on grammar in the text. Those 20 pages do not touch on what I, as someone who has taught college level writing courses for several years, would consider to be some of the most confusing parts of grammar: how to use commas, semicolons, and colons; how to use conjunctions (and what conjunctions are); and how to use adverbs and adjectives. This is just one example, but it’s a problem that persists throughout the book. The book will frequently mention that something is important, but then will not go into any detail about how to address it in your own writing. If the book were about twice as long as it currently is, I think that it could have addressed the points it brings up more effectively. There is no index or glossary in the book, but this could be do to the short length. You can basically use the table of contents for the same thing. I also think that the oversimplification of some of the topics leaves the reader with a really skewed sense of what good writing can look like. The author talks about their being only four kinds of writing, and then having very rigid definitions of what each type looks like. I think this is a problem because it is trying to oversimplify a complicated and fluid subject like writing. To acknowledge my own viewpoint, I come from a Critical Education tradition. This means that, when I teach writing, I emphasize thinking about why writing rules have been put into place and presenting students with numerous different approaches to writing. I take the view of writing that there are an infinite number of ways to write well. Because of this training, I disagree with how much the book tries to simplify writing. If an instructor comes from a Humanist Education tradition, I could very easily see them disagreeing with this particular assessment of the book. This part really depends on what “good writing” means to you as a teacher. I would not be able to use this book to teach because of my own educational philosophy. In sum, the book does a good job of identifying many of the important aspects of college level writing, but it does not go into enough detail on these topics and it does not leave room for any nuance on any topic.

Content Accuracy rating: 2

For the most part, the content is accurate. However, there are some errors that will make it confusing for readers. On page 25, the book talks about rhetorical concepts like ethos, pathos, and logos. However, the way that the author describes these terms is not at all how I understand them, and not how any university I have worked at has wanted them taught. For example, the author describes "logos" as "the text," and the book argues that attending to logos means that you should "ask yourself ... what is gained by having the text composed in this format" (p. 25). However, all four universities I have taught for have logos to mean an argument that appeals to logic (see the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modes_of_persuasion) on ethos, pathos, and logos. Another error comes in the grammar section on page 80. The author lists some example sentence fragments, but the examples given are not actually fragments. For example, the author gives an example of a clause with no subject: “For not doing her own homework, Missy was expelled.” However, there is clearly a subject here, and this is not a sentence fragment. In fact, two of the three examples that the author uses to illustrate sentence fragments are not actually sentence fragments at all.

Relevance/Longevity rating: 4

This is a difficult question to answer for this text; the only thing I could imagine would need frequent updates would be the citation guides (MLA and APA) since those styles update semi-frequently. This would be pretty straightforward as all of that information is limited to one section. I think one aspect of the book that adds relevancy to the subject of writing is that it takes into account visuals in writing and web sources. The text does a good job of engaging with and linking to online sources. The author uses multiple images and graphs, and they link to where the images came from on the internet. I think it’s also really nice that the author spends a lot of time on how to use visuals in writing. Taking into account visuals in writing is helpful for more modern writing, and it really points to the book's desire to be multimodal and to support multimodal writing. I thought that this was one of the strengths of the book.

Clarity rating: 2

The book is accessible to some extent. The book is easy to read because the sections are very short and the writing is clear for the most part. Also, the author has a checklist for basically every section. These lists are helpful in the sense that it provides the reader with potential questions that they can ask themselves and things to look out for in their writing However, I think that in trying to achieve this briefness, the author has really oversimplified some things; this in turn makes the writing somewhat less clear (ironically) as there is a lot of grammatical terminology that is not fully explained. The use of terms is actually one of the biggest problems with the this book, in my opinion. The book uses a lot of jargon with little to no explanation of the meaning (or explaining it much later in the book). I will include some examples here (although this is not an exhaustive list). The author talks about how important the use of inductive reasoning (p. 33) is to an argument, but then only discusses what this means for one short paragraph. The author asks students to check for “logical fallacies” (p. 41) in writing, but then does not explain what a logical fallacy is. The author says that each quote should include a parenthetical citation (p. 47), but then only much later explains what a parenthetical citation is. There are many other instances of this, but these are some of the most prominent. This is a problem because it requires that students have an extensive knowledge of writing terms to be able to understand the information presented.

Consistency rating: 2

I actually feel confused about who the intended audience of this book is, which to me signals an issue with the internal framework. The author seems to be directing the book at new students of writing or to emergent bilingual students. This would explain the overly simplistic approach to writing. However, the sections about grammar are very confusing. The author uses a lot of jargon and technical terms for parts of speech, but then they don’t fully explain what those terms mean. The text seems to assume that students will already know the names of many parts of speech (for example, modal verbs or subordinating phrases), which does not seem consistent with the elementary level of instruction on writing and organization. Additionally, the author sometimes contradicts themselves about what different kinds of writing are intended to do. For example, at the very beginning, the author writes that the purpose of expository writing is to “explain a concept” and that it “does not include the author’s opinions” (p. 3). Later in the book, she writes “Every author has a purpose” (p. 21). It feels somewhat confusing whether the author of the textbook sees all writers as trying to advance at least some kind of argument or not.

Modularity rating: 4

It would be pretty easy to read sections of this book, and I actually think that this might be a much better way to engage with this text. Only asking students to read the sections on revising and organization, for example, could be more effective than engaging with the whole book. However, students would need to read whole sections and not individual subsections. So for example, you could easily read the “Researching” section independent of the other sections, but you could not read the subsections within "Researching" individually. This is mainly due to the problems with the organization (see next section). I actually think the book might be more useful when read out of order, since the order is not very intuitive anyway -- for example, the book talks about in text citations and uses a lot of jargon to describe them before it talks about what those terms mean in the grammar section. You could easily use different sections of this book independently of each other.

Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 3

Some of the organization of the book was really helpful. I thought that the sections about organizing, revising, and composing were organized in a reasonable way. The first section (Composing) started out by talking about understanding what different types of writing exists along with understanding what your instructor is asking you to do. It followed fairly naturally through organizing, citations, grammar, and then revision. So in other words, the organization of each of the broader headings made good sense. My major concern was in the individual sections, especially with the grammar section. The grammar section starts with subordinate clauses, which I would argue is not an intuitive place to start a grammar lesson. Subordinate clauses require an understanding of what a complete sentence looks like and how subjects and verbs work. The text does not explain what a clause is, and it has not up until that point discussed what nouns and verbs are. In fact, nouns and verbs do not come until the very end of the section. It is also very common in this section to mention a part of speech that I would not consider to be a very common word, and then not to explain what the part of speech is until a much later section. Similarly, in the citation section, the author talks about what information you need for a citation before talking about what a citation is. In that section, the author also gives instructions about how to create MLA and APA citations, but does not give the same examples of CMS citation, even though it has its own section.

Interface rating: 5

The interface is really nice. The table of contents links to all the different sections in the book, and the images and citations link to external web pages, which I thought was really helpful. All of the images and graphs were produced correctly and were easy to understand/ read. There were no display issues or navigation problems.

Grammatical Errors rating: 4

There were no grammatical errors -- although, I did see one typo. As mentioned earlier, some of the grammar advice that the author was providing was incorrect; however, I would classify this as a content issue rather than a grammar issue.

Cultural Relevance rating: 3

The text is certainly not culturally insensitive or offensive. In fact, the author has clearly been very conscious about choosing pictures, citations, and example sentences that represent diverse people. The authors that she cites for the citation examples are frequently authors of color when you google them. This is refreshing, especially in a genre that very frequently uses pretty clear “white” names in example sentences (e.g. I have seen a lot of resources that use very normative names in grammar examples). I really appreciated the conscious effort on the author’s part to include diverse examples. On a more substantive level, I think the author’s definition of what makes for a credible source is really problematic. She writes that a source is credible if the authors “have an academic background (scientist, professor, etc.)” and that the source should be written “with formal language and presented formally” (p. 40). This feels problematic, especially in the field of writing as scholars are trying to point out how the idea of formal writing supports racist notions of what academic writing looks like (see Young's 2007 book on Black vernacular English in college writing, for example). Additionally, this seems like an odd statement from the author of an open access resource, considering open access should be about making knowledge more accessible and valuing knowledge constructed outside the academy as well.