The Evolution of the Writing Handbook
Broadview’s most successful book thus far this year is the sixth edition of our Broadview Guide to Writing. It’s a success that I’m sure has come in large part as a result of They Say / I Say authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s comment on the latest edition:
“Even the most useful reference guides are not always, well, shall we say, riveting. A refreshing exception is the new Broadview Guide to Writing, which is smart, helpful, and even fun to read.”
The praise has of course been gratifying—but it’s also prompted some reflection on my part over the history of writing guides and handbooks in North America.
When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, writing guides were often called “handbooks” but they were anything but handy: they were typically hardcover and often very heavy, sometimes running to 1,000 pages or more. Writing handbooks started to be issued more often in lighter, paperback formats in the late 1970s, but the great revolution in the format of these books came with the publication of Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference in 1989. Within three or four years almost every writing handbook had adopted the Hacker formula of organizing the book’s contents with the help of color coding and tabbed cardboard dividers. Much as their format changed, though, these handbooks remained (as the title of the Hacker suggests) primarily for reference use; they were not the sort of books one would think of reading for pleasure.
Then the Internet happened, and a new format developed for reference “handbooks.” Nowadays books such as A Writer’s Reference remain widely used, but many instructors are sending their students to online alternatives—most notably, Purdue University’s Owl website. Such sites of course have the great advantage of being free. In the case of the Owl website at least, they can also be quite good; they may not be as comprehensive as bound books but they are reasonably wide-ranging, and usually quite accurate in their coverage of grammatical points. What they are not—any more than A Writer’s Reference has ever been—is entertaining to read.
For that reason, there has always been an alternative stream of academics who have sent their students not to any of the handbooks but to William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style—a book that’s been around since 1918 and that has remained famous as much for being highly readable as for anything it says about writing.
For decades, then, that has been the pattern: if academics wanted to assign reference material on writing, they would assign a handbook such as “the Hacker,” whereas if they wanted their students to read something about writing that might truly engage student interest, they would assign Strunk and White.
What we at Broadview are starting to realize with the reactions to the Broadview Guide to Writing is that the latest edition may be a book that can offer both. It’s certainly a book you can turn to for guidance on points of grammar or the details of MLA or APA citation style. But it’s also a book that both students and their instructors may find interesting to read; certainly many academics are telling us that the book’s 35-page chapter on ethical and political issues relating to language has been engaging student interest and prompting discussion on a wide range of topics relating to writing and to language. And the same is true of the chapter on reading images, the extended discussion of the concept of “correctness” in English, and the material on writing about literary and other texts.
If you have ideas as to other topics we might add to future editions—or if you haven’t seen the latest edition of The Broadview Guide to Writing and would like to—I hope you’ll be in touch! All the best,
PS The Broadview Guide to Writing now exists in several different versions, which can be somewhat confusing. Here’s a brief rundown.
The full Broadview Guide to Writing:
The Broadview Guide to Writing: A Handbook for Students 6/e ISBN 978-1-55481-313-1 by Corey Frost, Karen Weingarten, Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun. This is the latest American edition of the full Guide to Writing.
The Broadview Guide to Writing revised sixth Canadian edition ISBN 978-1-55481-335-3 by Doug Babington, Don LePan, Maureen Okun, and Nora Ruddock. This is the latest Canadian edition of the full Guide to Writing.
The Pocket Guide to Writing:
The Broadview Pocket Guide to Writing: A Concise Handbook for Students 4/e ISBN 978-1-55481-344-5 by Corey Frost, Karen Weingarten, Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun. Now at press: scheduled for publication August 15. This is the latest American edition of the Pocket Guide to Writing.
The Broadview Pocket Guide to Writing revised fourth Canadian edition ISBN 978-1-55481-336-0 by Doug Babington, Don LePan, Maureen Okun, and Nora Ruddock. This is the latest Canadian edition of the Pocket Guide to Writing.
The Broadview Pocket Guide to Citation and Documentation:
The Broadview Pocket Guide to Citation and Documentation 2e ISBN 978-1-55481-334-6 by Maureen Okun and Nora Ruddock. This concise volume comprises only the material on citation and documentation styles. The same edition serves for both the United States and Canada.