Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Writing Class


Classes began yesterday. Today, though, is my first class in Writing in Psychology. I’ve talked about this class before in my blog, close to a year ago. I only teach it every other semester. This year, for the first time, we’ll be using our own book as the text, Writing in Psychology: A Guidebook. I’m looking forward to that, although this year may be a challenge since I have thirty students registered for the class.

On the first class day in Writing I traditionally spend a fair amount of time talking about the kind of reference books that the students need. Specific to this class is the need for the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, although many will already have this since it is required in a course they take earlier.

Other books are more general. I stress the need for a good dictionary. I personally recommend the Oxford American Dictionary, which is the largest paperback dictionary available. It’s almost 30 years old now and won’t have some of the newest techie terms in our language, but the students already know those anyway. What they don’t always know are the “affects” and “effects” and other problem words like that. I also tell them they should have a thesaurus, and I use Webster’s New World Thesaurus, which I’ve modified over the years by adding words. These days, dictionaries and thesauruses are available online and we have links in our textbook to some online sources.

Although everyone needs a dictionary, and maybe even a thesaurus, anyone who is going to take writing seriously needs some other books as well. I recommend a book on grammar. I use The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer. I also recommend three other books: Harry Shaw’s Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Zinsser’s book is my favorite book on writing and I try to reread it at least every couple of years.

For those of you who are interested in writing, what books would you recommend to a new writer? Or an old one? I’m always on the lookout for new finds.
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40 comments:

Christine Purcell said...

Charles, that is fantastic that you're teaching Writing in Psychology. I'm just finishing up my PhD in Neuropsychology (my last semester, yeah!).

For psych majors, I completely agree with you that Strunk & White and the APA Publication Manual are a must.

Writing fiction is a whole different beast. I thought I was a good writer until I tried to write fiction. What a shock!

My favorite books that helped me learn the craft are: James Wood "How Fiction Works," Browne & King "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" (basic, but a great place to start), and Robert McKee "Story" (for screenwriters, but still really applicable to fiction writing).

I have about 30 books on how to write fiction gracing my shelves, but I've found these the most useful.

I'm always looking for more suggestions. You can never learn too much about craft. How else do you know what rules are fun to break?

Scott Parker said...

I've got Elements of Style and Grammar here at my day job. For dictionary, in this age of Dictionary.com, I don't have a paper one with me. I do at home but rarely use it. Thesaurus is my book of choice.

Gabby said...

I recommend Words Into Type, while although more geared toward the Editor/Copy Editor/Proofreader, it has a lot of good basics concerning grammar, etc. I think the last edition is something like 30 years old, but still a good one among many writing/editing circles. (I was able to score my copy at Half Price Books for about $6, and it looks like it had hardly been used.)

sage said...

For a psychology writing class, I think I'd recommend Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" (for the suicidal) and Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (for those wanting to have fun)!

On a more serious note, do you know Philip Gerard's work? He has a book on creative non-fiction and another on writing to make a difference...

ArtSparker said...

So this is a writing course for psych majors? I'm being thrown by the preposition I think. I keep thinking a broadsheet of the 10 commandments of things not to do - the inappropriate apostrophe and so forth. Maybe I'll do an illustrated book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Christine, congrats on nearing the end. My area of specialization is physiological psych. Thanks for the book suggestions. I'm going to look for these.

Scott, I've got an unabridged dictionary at home that I use all the time. I do use online dictionaries at times, of course.

Gabby, I appreciate a good grammar book very much. I don't have that one, though. Thanks.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, good suggestions, although we don't do any fiction in the class as it's constituted now. It's more about the technical writing aspects. I don't know Gerard's work. I'll have to check it out.

Artsparker, a class on how to write term papers, research reports, etc., in psychology.

benjibopper said...

These are the exact books I use (other than the psych one).

I'm also planning to read a book about editing your own fiction soon, but your students probably wouldn't find that useful.

One of the best pieces on writing was that famous essay by George Orwell with rules like "never use a big word when a little word will do."

The Bible is also a very solid example of good, simple, effective writing.

Voidwalker said...

I own the Elements of Style and I think it's a great yet simple book that helps clarify some do's and don'ts. Depending on what kind of writing the new author is interested in, I'd point them toward the reference section of any book store, which are packed full of good reads.

One of the newest books I've come to enjoy using in my own writing is "The Writer's Guide to Character Traits," which I've blogged a little about.

And for the record, I'd love to sit in on your class. That'd be pretty awesome. Your students are in for a treat. :)

Natasha Fondren said...

My Kindle has a dictionary, and I'm at dictionary.com and thesaurus.com all the time, but you can't cuddle up in a chair with either of those. Not even on the Kindle, because you can't flip through easily.

So I really miss having a dictionary. I loved reading it.

Lana Gramlich said...

You've already named more books than I use, so I'll leave it to the Master...

Steve Malley said...

I'd also add Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson. It's a concise little guide to the finer points of 'affects vs. effects', 'anyone vs any one' and so forth. Bloody marvelous!

Cloudia said...

APA style!
So glad I don't have to heed it any more.
of course I applaud your choices, these texts are indispensable.

I like to think of myself as a sort of PhD of words who knows the rules, the antecedents, and can break them to offer something new - not heedless, but original. signed, Neologism Sally


Aloha, Friend!


Comfort Spiral

G said...

I have the sixth edition of The Gregg Reference manual that I got back in the early 90's when I went to business school, and I still use it to this day.

Also picked up "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" last year on a tip from another writer's blog.

As for day to day stuff, I have a paperback version of the Oxford dictionary that I keep stashed at work (like I really need it doing payroll, so it gets used for other things).

Richard Prosch said...

I second James Wood, HOW FICTION WORKS. Also, ZEN AND THE ART OF WRITING by Ray Bradbury. And any of Harlan Ellison's nonfiction essay collections.

Travis said...

I have most of those in my reference library, except for the one specific to psychology. I bought a new dictionary not long ago, but I still have the one I bought in 1981 for my first semester in college.

Charles Gramlich said...

benjibopper, I definitely find the King James version of the Bible to be amazingly well written.

Voidwalker, thanks for the kind words. I think we're going to have some fun in the class, although they're going to work.

Natasha Fondren, I haven't just read in my dictionaries in a long time but I did always enjoy that. BTW, I don't know why but in my google reader your last post yesterday took me to some kind of commercial site. Not sure what happened.

Lana Gramlich, well when I need some information on books on Pink Floyd I will call upon you sweetness.

Steve Malley, I'll look for that book. I don't have it. But I have heard of it.

Cloudia, one of the things the students need to know is about how you need to know the rules before you can successfully break them.

G, I'm going to have to get that self editing book. Sounds intersting.

Richard Prosch, I have Bradbury's Zen but I think it applies mostly to fiction, which we're not really talking about in this class. Interseting book, though.

Travis, I love to keep my dictionaries too. I've even bought a few at booksales that were very old.

Demon Hunter said...

Charles,
I do have the Elements of Style. But might I suggest two more that I've found handy? :-D

SIN and SYNTAX by Constance Hale
SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Dave King and Renni Browne

jennifer said...

Believe it or not, I have some books on grammar as well as a good dictionary and thesarus. I kept ONE text book from college - it was about writing.

I need to utilize those tools more.

the walking man said...

I probably shouldn't admit that I have never read a book on "how to write."

King's was recommended once a decade or so ago but I never got around to it.

Greg Schwartz said...

I've never read "On Writing Well" -- I'll have to look it up. I bought a Random House book once called "Word Menu" or something similar (it's packed in a box now), which was a unique way of looking up words by subject and other attributes. I remember it being kind of neat, though I probably didn't take advantage of it like I should have.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Zinsser's book is great. I've been meaning to get the James Wood book. I get a lot out of Stephen King's ON WRITING, too. But not for your course, of course.

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know, one thing I've noticed about college students is that they lack a fundamental understanding of how to construct an academic paper. When they are throwing information at a reader, trying to make up for uncertainty with bulk, they often present supporting point after supporting point, building an untidy house of cards without an appreciation for how their positions may be picked apart by a critical reader.

As for fiction writing, I'm with Christine in Wood's "How Fiction Works". However, I warn that that text is a more advanced work for the serious student of creative writing and not for someone just starting out.

I guess if I were teaching creative writing, there would be two books; one explaining the basics of craft (you know, writing for dummies) and another book composed of great short stories. I think too often writers write without an appreciation of what has come before and how the best do what they do.

Bernita said...

I imagine the cited aids include the formatting of footnotes and bibliography - things I always managed to screw up.

ninthmuse (roz m) said...

Hey, you didn't offer this when I was at Xavier! I definitely would have signed up for it!

Charles Gramlich said...

Demon Hunter, I've heard a lot about the self-editing book and just ordered it from B&N last night. I'll check the other one out as well.

jennifer, I'm weird in that I actually rather enjoy just browsing through books about words and grammar.

Mark, well, there's no guarantee they help anyway. I just rather enjoy them myself. And I imagine they do help some folks. It's probably much less of an issue in writing poetry than if you were going to do technical writing maybe.

Greg Schwartz, I enjoyed a book I had called "the Describer's Dictionary," which showed words used in context in lovely prose.

pattinase, I ordered a couple of writing books last night and will look for the Wood book. I use zinsser all the time.

Stewart Sternberg, we spend a lot of time in this class on organizing information, trying to make it hang together, and culling and narrowing to get to your point. I agree that that's a weakness of many college students.
I do give students also examples of fine Nonfic writing in science to study.

Bernita, we talk a lot about references for sure, although footnotes aren't commonly used in psychology. We spend a lot of time on references though.

ninthmuse, I don't remember when we first added that class. It would have been a pleasure to have you as a student in it.

Erik Donald France said...

Charles, these sound right on. I wonder about traditional dictionaries, though, given current online versions. I guess it's like learning how to do basic math manually -- and how to write longhand -- good to know when the power goes out or no easy device access, and a little different in terms of mind-body processing.

jodi said...

Charles, who wouldn't want to take your class? Altho I realize it must make all the work so much more time consuming. I have NO idea, for recommendations since I only tell stories--not write.

Shauna Roberts said...

I think a medical dictionary is important. Medical news is in the newspaper and on TV all the time, and Web sites about medical problems don't always define words or define them confusingly.

As a medical writer, I own several medical dictionaries. The one I like best is Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary. For people who don't want to spend a lot of money, some of the medical dictionaries come in an abridged paperback form.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, I definitly think having hard copies available is important. I talked about how they can often find good dictionaries and such at library books sales.

jodi, thanks for the kind words. I did have one student drop the class. I think it was the work load she didn't want.

Shauna Roberts, I still use my Taber's quite a bit, and I have some bio dictionaries that cover a lot of the same information. But yes, a medical dictionary is a handy thing to have.

writtenwyrdd said...

This sounds really dumb, but honestly, a lot of writer wannabes do not have a good dictionary or thesaurus! Also a basic style book like Strunk & Whites' is good.

As far as most writing books go, I think books on plot are very useful, but, really, they can read about any of this stuff on the net if they want.

Mary Witzl said...

How incredibly cool that you've written your own book and get to teach with it!

Your students are on an entirely different plane from mine. It's all we can do to get our students to look at, let alone understand, Raymond Murphy's Essential Grammar in Use. For teaching EFL students writing, the consensus is that NOTHING is adequate.

It's fantastic having dictionaries and thesauruses on the internet now. I used to wear my shoulders and back out, lugging heavy Japanese-English dictionaries around: now I can find all I need in cyberspace and the only muscles I need are the ones in my fingers.

cs harris said...

I hate to admit it because grammar is important to me, but I've always hated reading grammar books. My eyes glaze over. I've heard of Bryson's Troublesome Words and should get it; I can't imagine him boring me with anything--even grammar.

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, I still am old fashioned enough to think folks need to spend some quality time away from the net reading. Reading online lends itself to a quick and surface perusal, at least it seems that way to me.

Mary Witzl, I am enjoying it, teaching with my own book, but it does create it's own stressors. I want to be good, for example! yes, online stuff can be very nice if mixed with printed material.

Candy, I just ordered that one so I'll let you know what it's like.

writtenwyrdd said...

I should probably clarify what I was thinking when I said people could read about how to write on the web, Charles.

Basically, I prefer books over the internet. But I own probably 30 books on how to write, and I have yet to read more than five of them cover-to-cover. I have glanced through them at random, gotten halfway through, and looked things up in them. But I don't find I sit down and read through the how to books like they deserve.

So in that sense they are a waste of money, although never a waste of time.

And when I made that comment I was thinking about many writers just starting out, who might not be able to invest money or time in reading books that aren't that useful to them at that point in time. (Realistically speaking, that is. No writing practice nor reading on how to write is wasted, imo!)

ivan said...

I think I would like to re-read W. Somerset Maugham's "The Summing Up", if I can find it again in my eclectic library.
The book, on the surface describes Maugham's early life as a short story writer. But it seems to have a subtext: How to think,how to live, how to write like a professional. I especially found good tips for the novelist or short story writer and ever better ones for the aspiring playwright, though it seems if you want to write plays you must practically live and breathe theatre--you can't just have the desire...Heh. Like you or me?
Present day critics say Maugham was a mediocre writer, but he could write plays. And how!

After years of tinkering with novels, it has struck me that the play might indeed be the thing. Ah well. Enthusiasms. Current projects!

laughingwolf said...

current read:

'drawing words & writing pictures', jessica abel & matt madden

sure it's about cartooning, but so much more as well...

jennifer said...

I have signed up for my first writing workshop!!! I had to share that with you :) This will be the first 'class' that I have taken in twenty years and I'm nervous (but excited too).

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, as you see, I used your earlier comment as a jumping off place. I'm pretty much the opposite of you. I've never read a book on writing in e-version, but I always finish the print books on the subject that I start.

ivan, I have a copy of the SUmming up around here and keep thinking I'll get to it. Alas, it hasn't happened so far.

laughingwolf, haven't looked into that one. I'll check around.

jennifer, oh wow, that's cool. I bet you will have a lot of fun with it. Congrats on taking that step. Let us know how things go.

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