I'd like to buy a book for my girlfriend to help her structure her ideas in academic writing.
March 19, 2009 4:23 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy a book for my girlfriend to help her structure her ideas in academic writing. My girlfriend is a graduate student in the humanities. She is clever, erudite and rigorous, but her ability to build an argument is poor. She finds it particularly difficult to unpack a complex concept and present its constitutive parts in a logical sequence. The book I'd like to buy helps writers with these specific problems, ideally (but not necessarily) within the context of research in the humanities.

What I don't want:
  • A general textbook on critical thinking
  • A manual of style
posted by limon to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
The Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto might be what you are looking for.
posted by Bigbrowncow at 4:31 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There's no single book that fits your requirements perfectly: business/journalism books like that Pyramid Principle thing are not going to help much, I don't think, and many of the obvious style manuals have sections that might help. I'd recommend The Craft of Research as the right place to start. Also look at Zinsser's On Writing Well.
posted by RogerB at 4:37 PM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest The Craft of Research, too.
posted by Orinda at 4:42 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: A Rulebook for Arguments? It's been required reading in a couple classes I've taken.
posted by speeb at 4:49 PM on March 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I recommend Lucille Vaughan Payne's The Lively Art of Writing. It focuses on the essay rather than on longer papers, and the examples are extremely dated, but the principles it teaches are sound, will improve most people's writing, and can easily be adapted to larger pieces. It is commonly used in high school writing classes so she may feel it is beneath her level, but I think it may help.
posted by kindall at 4:49 PM on March 19, 2009

Ditto the above, and the work of Wiliam Germano, especially Getting it Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. There's little reason to be in the humanities if you don't intend to publish.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:51 PM on March 19, 2009

Best answer: I know you asked about a book to give, but your girlfriend might also consider a visit to her university writing center. Usually affiliated with the English department, they can work with suggestions on a particular paper, but also help to hone general writing skills.
posted by Phoenix42 at 5:01 PM on March 19, 2009

I second the writing center thing. It sounds like part of her problem might be organization -- that is, she has the arguments functioning perfectly well in her head, but the way she presents them is opaque to the reader. And that's one thing writing centers are good at.

A lot of this, though, comes with practice and harsh criticism. Does she have a mentor who would be willing to do a close read of some of her papers?

Also, what discipline is she in? There's a huge difference even within the humanities between the argumentative tools needed for philosophy and, say, comparative literature.
posted by paultopia at 5:08 PM on March 19, 2009

Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy is brilliant.

It would be OK for any post-grad writing, I imagine, and seems to be fairly neutral about the discipline, but it's is absolutely clear about structuring writing, managing reader's expectations, how much to write, where to edit, how to structure things in a sensible way. As simple and study-guidey as it is, it's one of the best books I have read while working through my PhD.

Added bonus - you can read it quickly, so absorbing it won't cut too much into time she should be spending on her work. It sits on my desk as a reference tool now, and I just pick it up when I have questions about structure or style.
posted by lottie at 5:46 PM on March 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I forgot to mention - the book I just mentioned is hot property around my department (Design Research) and is handed from researcher to researcher to researcher... everyone loves it.
posted by lottie at 5:48 PM on March 19, 2009

This is exactly what Zinsser focuses on; I haven't read his book myself, but I know his courses at Yale were very popular and taught a lot of people how to write effectively in the way you describe.
posted by languagehat at 5:54 PM on March 19, 2009

I was here to recommend the writing center (sometimes affiliated with the University library rather than the English department specifically) and The Craft of Research, but others have beat me to it. The book is a bit elementary but could prove very helpful for your girlfriend. I would suggest getting it out of the library before purchasing it so you can have a look, in case it's not exactly right for her needs.

Has your girlfriend expressed a need for this type of book? I might be a little put off if my boyfriend got me a book about how to do my job (because that's how I view graduate school, as my job) but I am pretty sensitive about school so that might just be me. This is why I suggest getting the book out of the library before jumping in and buying it; it's less of a commitment and more of a, hey, look what I found when I was browsing in the stacks, I thought you might like this nice gesture.
posted by k8lin at 6:13 PM on March 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding RogerB's recommendation of Booth, Colomb, and Williams, The Craft of Research. That plus Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, will give plenty of good ideas.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:51 PM on March 19, 2009

She might be able to get a lot out of John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. Although he's writing about creating, he does a wonderful job of showing how things should be connected and how to balance elements.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:03 PM on March 19, 2009

I'd like to chime in about the writing center as well. At many universities, the writing center is like a hidden treasure - not many people seem to know that students can have regular meetings with professional writing instructors to discuss their work. Often it's free.
posted by medusa at 7:10 PM on March 19, 2009

nthing Craft of Research!!
posted by mdiskin at 7:23 PM on March 19, 2009

I'll second the writing center, and add that rather than relying on any general theories of argumentation, your girlfriend might try learning inductively simply by studying successful arguments in her field.

Although basic structural principles obviously apply everywhere, the specific conventions of argument (what's an acceptable beginning and ending, what constitutes valid evidence, what's a workable and interesting claim vs. what's not) can vary quite widely from discipline to discipline-- and often from subfield to subfield within a given discipline. Frequently, the quickest and most accurate way to access the subtleties of good argumentation is to spend a lot of time reading journals relevant to your field and constructing your own theories of argument inductively-- for instance, by writing brief outlines or reviews of particularly compelling or convincing journal articles. As an alternative or a supplement to a broad textbook, would you consider getting your girlfriend a one-year subscription to a top journal in her specialty? Particularly for non-linear thinkers, learning by doing (or by watching others doing) can be really effective.
posted by Bardolph at 7:38 PM on March 19, 2009

A tangential note that your girlfriend as a humanities wonk might appreciate: this aspect of writing is part of what was meant by the classical term "rhetoric". Unfortunately during the twentieth century in English "rhetoric" seems to have come to refer to almost any aspect of writing or speaking, so that many books with this word in their title are about something dumb like creative writing or grammar or writing style.

But that could be a good search term to start from and don't shy away from older books like those from the 19th century or even ancient Roman or Greek texts on rhetoric - back then the average literate person was probably better at this sort of stuff compared to the average literate person today.
posted by XMLicious at 1:31 AM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Straight and Crooked Thinking by Robert Thouless.
posted by Elmore at 2:18 AM on March 20, 2009

Best answer: I highly recommend a book that helped me as a graduate student - Clear and Simple As the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. It's a wonderful tome that focuses on style not as a set of rules but as an intellectual pursuit; as such, it's much more 'organic' and natural, at least to me.
posted by koeselitz at 4:53 AM on March 20, 2009

Composition instructor and Writing Center tutor here. The suggestions to visit a writing center are good ones, with the caveat that tutoring styles vary drastically between writing centers and even individual tutors. This might be mostly an organizational problem.

However, I think even more helpful than assistance in organization would be a basic logic textbook. Teaching my college freshmen how to recognize logical fallacies always improves their argument-building markedly. As someone who was a philosophy minor (in addition to an English major) back in the day, I can tell you that most humanities students--hell, most students--don't get the grounding in logical argumentation that they really need to be able to write a decent paper.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:12 AM on March 20, 2009

Another vote for On Writing Well. A goodly portion of the book is devoted to exactly what you seek, structure, and it is probably the finest book available on the subject of how to write well. It should be required reading for any student.
posted by caddis at 7:01 AM on March 20, 2009

FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research. (Anthropology writing textbook). For general writing skills: Stephen King's On Writing.
posted by acro at 12:56 PM on March 20, 2009

I'm late to this party, but as someone who routinely teaches graduate students this very skill, there are two books by which I swear, both by Howard Becker, the innovative and extraordinary qualitative sociologist. The more immediately relevant one is called *Tricks of the Trade,* and the ancillary text is called *Writing for Social Scientists.* Even if you do not consider yourself a social scientist, there is insight to be gleaned in these books, as well as Becker's fine example of expressing complex ideas in concise, vivid, readable prose. (*Writing for Social Scientists* deals more with the related issue of structuring your written discourse so that arguments emerge clearly; as a mentor of mine once said, you don't know what you think until you write it down.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:41 PM on March 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

(I should mention that *Tricks of the Trade* is subtitled: "How to Think About Your Research While You're Doing It." Ka-ching.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:43 PM on March 20, 2009

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