Monday, April 2, 2007

Writing Handbooks: Choosing and Using

It's the beginning of a new term, and if you're in a course that's going to involve a lot of writing, it's highly possible that the instructor has required or suggested that you buy a writing handbook. If the instructor has not, you might want to consider buying one anyway.

The Writing Center's experience is that many students buy a writing handbook and then never open it up. Some students--the
very bad students--don't even buy the handbook. Oh, those very bad students! So bad!

In honor of book-buying time, here are some thoughts on purchasing a writing handbook.

1. You should. It's a tremendous value. Even the most expensive handbooks are rarely more than forty dollars, and those handbooks have tips on researching, formatting, structuring a piece of writing, checking grammar and punctuation, and various forms of citation. In other words, for forty dollars you could own a book that will help you in just about any writing situation you will encounter in your academic career. Let's say you buy a handbook your junior year for forty dollars and use it for your last two years of school. That's forty dollars divided by six terms. That works out to $6.67 per term. You're going to spend about that on lunch and coffee today, aren't you?

2. And it's actually kind of worth even more than that, because as the salesmen say, who can put a price on peace of mind? At midnight the night before an important paper is due, when you've forgotten how to format the citations and bibliography in your research paper, do you really want to wade into the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet? When your eyes are already bleary? Everyone knows the Internet is mostly just for dating. What if you had a good handbook sitting right in front of you? The answers you need! Right in front of you!

3. What if we did the math by number of classes? One forty dollar handbook divided by, say, two years of ten courses per year. That's twenty courses, which means you're really paying only $2 per course to have professional writing advice at your desk. If you buy a handbook as a freshman, you're paying even less.

Next topic: If your intructor hasn't required a specific handbook, which one should you buy?

Good question! We will respond to this question in as matter-of-fact a way as possible.

1. The handbooks at the desks in The Writing Center include The Everyday Writer by Andrea Lunsford, A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker, and A Prentice Hall Guide to Grammar and Usage by Muriel Harris. These are all pretty comprehensive and user-friendly, and are examples of the kind of handbook I had in mind when doing the math above. HINT: You can find them cheaper at a used bookstore, especially Goodwill.

2. If you want to pay twenty dollars instead of forty, there are often slimmer, coil-bound versions of these books available. You lose some material in the cheaper versions, but they're still pretty good.

3. Someone will tell you that the classic writer's guide is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The Writing Center is a fan of E.B. White, and The Writing Center likes The Elements of Style. The Writing Center also teaches writing courses, though, and knows that most students do not like The Elements of Style because they feel it is grouchy, and also: The Elements of Style doesn't have nearly as much information in it as more contemporary handbooks. The Writing Center suggests that you not buy The Elements of Style as an everyday handbook.

4. There are entire writing handbooks specific to particular documentation styles. There is an MLA handbook, an APA handbook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and so forth. The Writing Center feels you should buy one of these books only when you've chosen a major and know which citation style is used in your particular area of study. But also: these books are available for your free perusal in The Writing Center resource room, so you don't necessarily have to buy one for yourself. If you want to have it on your own desk for those late-night writing sessions, though, go for it.

5. If you'd like to look at any of these books, or ask any other questions about them, feel free to stop by the PSU Writing Center. We're in Cramer Hall 188F.

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