Basic books on writing?
September 4, 2019 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend any basic books on writing (particularly essay writing) for adults?

My partner has a very different cultural & educational background than I do; his education was extremely STEM-focused from a pretty young age. He learned English later in life, and attended school in three different languages at different times so spent a lot of time in school with less-than-perfect fluency in the language of instruction. Because of that, he never really received much instruction or practice in writing, particularly longer-form writing.

He is now in the process of writing application essays for a graduate program – a program that will itself require significantly more writing than he has done in the past – and I’m realizing just how much of a challenge that will be for him (although he is an incredibly dedicated, skilled learner and I have no doubts about his ability to rise to that challenge.) A lot of things that are second-nature to me are things that he's never really encountered before.

In service of preparing for that, I’m hoping to recommend a book or two that walks through the mechanics of basic writing (particularly essay-writing) - things like effectively constructing a paragraph, planning out a clear essay, writing strong introductions and conclusions, etc. It would also be nice if they covered the basics around appropriate attribution and what constitutes plagiarism – not because I think he’s an unethical person, but because I’m not sure that he was ever really taught about those concepts. He has a pretty good grasp of grammar, so less of a need for that.

A lot of the books on writing I’ve seen thus far seem like they’re predicated on someone having been at least taught a lot of those “basics” previously, and that they’re focused on improving existing writing skills. It would be helpful if this book did not make such an assumption.

He has exceptional self-driven learning skills and is definitely the type of person to sit down and work through something cover-to-cover, whether it’s more of a workbook or an instructional book (this is something that impresses me to no end because it is not a skill I have, at all.) Nevertheless, it’d probably be nice if the book had a somewhat entertaining voice and wasn’t too childish (or educator-focused.)

(I promise that such a recommendation is something that he would welcome; he has appreciated similar recommendations in the past and wants help in this area.)
posted by mosst to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
In rough order of 101-ness:

Strunk and White, 'Elements of Style'
William Zinsser, 'On Writing Well'
Dr. Jacob Neumann, 'A Professor's Guide to Writing Essays'
Tracy Kidder, 'Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction'
Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter, 'Understanding the Essay'
posted by box at 8:29 AM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have taught writing to college students for the last ten years, and I beg you: please don't give him Strunk and White. It's a fun read and useful for some basics, but it is really not aimed at writers of contemporary academic essays, and it can lead to bad habits. It's also, for some reason (probably because it is somehow both charming and intensely didactic), a book who people tend to get attached to, making it very hard to talk them out of those habits.

Give him this instead: Three Modules on Clear Writing Style: An Introduction to the Craft of Argument. It's based on a system developed at the University of Chicago, and it is by far the most effective, systematic, and clear way to teach argument, which is the primary thing you need to understand in order to write an academic essay. You might also like Writing with Sources, which has detailed and pragmatic explanations of the logic of plagiarism.

Once he has worked through a few generalized books about essay writing, you may also wish to point him toward the blog The Professor is In, where she gives some good advice about grad school application essays specifically.
posted by dizziest at 9:07 AM on September 4, 2019 [10 favorites]

If you're looking for a good reference book to answer specific usage questions, I heartily recommend Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Despite looking like a boring dictionary, it is easy to read (even funny at times), and it doesn't perpetuate those silly bugaboos that people like Strunk tend to fill their guides with. It's not a book to sit down and read through (although I have been known to just pull it down and read random entries every now and then), but if you need to know whether it matters where you put the comma in a certain phrase, or you want to know if there's a difference between "flaunting" and "flouting", or if you want to know why some people get into arguments about the difference between "fewer" and "less", then this is your book.
posted by ErWenn at 1:32 PM on September 4, 2019

Ken McCrorie's Telling Writing had a massive impact on my development as a writer.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 2:02 PM on September 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

William Scates Frances of ANU put together a very idiosyncratic (and useful) Minimanual of The Essay Writer. He's a historian, so it's particularly useful for that discipline or adjacent ones, but it's in general a good guide to study, note-taking habits, and essay practice.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:03 PM on September 4, 2019

I think that They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Cathy Birkenstein, Gerald Graff, is one of the best books for learning how to write for an academic setting. They give lists of starter sentences that you can use to for your essays, and also give examples. I used it when I returned to college, and I bought a copy for each of my kids when they went.
posted by momochan at 7:19 PM on September 4, 2019

I'm fond of Writing with Power by Peter Elbow.

From the Amazon blurb:
"Employing a cookbook approach, Elbow provides the reader (and writer) with various recipes: for getting words down on paper, for revising, for dealing with an audience, for getting feedback on a piece of writing, and still other recipes for approaching the mystery of power in writing. In a new introduction, he offers his reflections on the original edition, discusses the responses from people who have followed his techniques, how his methods may differ from other processes, and how his original topics are still pertinent to today's writer. By taking risks and embracing mistakes, Elbow hopes the writer may somehow find a hold on the creative process and be able to heighten two mentalities--the production of writing and the revision of it."
posted by all the light we cannot see at 10:31 PM on September 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

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