For the past two decades I’ve taught writing, either implicitly in high-school literature-based English courses or explicitly in college-level composition courses. I’ve used more textbooks than I can count and referenced more journal articles than I could list. Most of these texts share what seems an obvious, appropriate, and helpful goal: To tell students what to think about writing. But the very act of codifying knowledge into textbook form stifles discussion or critique—once someone “wrote the book on” a subject, that subject is often seen as settled, complete, understood; students often see the textbook as infallible.
But in writing studies, as in many disciplines to be sure, we resist consensus and thrive on debate. If this weren’t the case, How to Write Anything: A Complete Guide (W. W. Norton, 2014) should have been the final word on the matter. Our subject of study resists instruction manuals. We understand that writing is complex, nuanced, and learned over time. Perhaps unfortunately for us, we live in a society where Newsweek contemplated “Why Johnny Can’t Write,” and many people conflate an ability to write something poorly (a messy text to a friend or an ineffective email to a colleague) with an ability to write anything well. Few people contemplate the distinctions among fundamental writing ability, refined writing skill, and an understanding of how writing works.
In response to the divide between the popular assumptions about writing and the knowledge gained from decades of research into writing, Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe created Bad Ideas About Writing. That text works to dispel common misconceptions and disabuse readers of incorrect assumptions about how writing works. Bad Ideas is an accessible, useful text. It addresses a real need and helps connect with a broad audience.
The topics addressed in Bad Ideas About Writing also connect directly with college students. Ideas in that book are often the very things college students are learning about, worried about, or recovering from. Many of them want to know how texting affects their writing. Most of them have studied famous authors with equally famous histories of drug and alcohol abuse. The vast majority of them have been taught to write five-paragraph essays all the time without ever being told why that form in particular is so ubiquitous. The topics included in Bad Ideas are extremely relevant to college students.
But using Bad Ideas in a classroom creates a frustrating number of challenges. While Bad Ideas authors wrote to a general audience of people who had made up their minds about writing, college students are actively working to learn ideas in the first place. Presenting a bad idea only to dispel that idea creates logical twists at the exact moment students expect explicit clarity. The most common reaction I see when students read Bad Ideas chapters is bafflement, as they try to untangle why they seem to agree with an author but disagree with the chapter—because the chapter titles are themselves things people shouldn’t think. In every other circumstance students see in school, they’re given texts named for what they should learn, should do, or should know. The central conceit of Bad Ideas About Writing is brilliant for the book but confusing for college students.
This text, Good Ideas About Writing, addresses that challenge head-on. We set out to do three things with this text:
- Preserve the intentions of Bad Ideas About Writing by addressing the same ideas;
- Explaining those ideas as clearly and directly as possible, starting with a foundation of the good ideas alone, avoiding mention of the bad ideas whenever possible; and
- Presenting content with language and approaches that are familiar and accessible to today’s college students.
In essence, this book is the result of a process of translation. The student-author of each Good Ideas chapter converted a chapter from Bad Ideas, written for a general informed audience, into a chapter written for a diverse audience of middle-class urban college students. Our goal has been to create a text that meets the needs of post-secondary writing instructors as much as Bad Ideas appeals to its intended audience.
Though the initial goal of this book is complete—all chapters in Bad Ideas have equivalent versions in Good Ideas—the born-digital nature of this work means it can easily adapt to meet the changing needs of the next generation of college writing students. Please reach out to discuss how you use this book in your classes and especially if you see ways this project could improve in the future. In the meantime, we sincerely hope that you find Good Ideas About Writing an accessible, helpful guide to thinking about the ways writing works in our world.