Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revising by the (text)book

One good thing about being a college dean in my day job is that I get more "review" or "desk" (aka "free") copies of books in my mailbox than you can throw a one-armed paperhanger with broken metaphors at.  The bad side of that is that most of them never actually get opened, and thus represent a waste of the poor trees that died to allow them to be printed.  Ferinstance, I'm not a Chemistry guy; stoichiometry makes me wish to stab #2 pencils into the eyes of whoever wrote the text I happen to have in front of me.  Yet because several months ago a publisher's agent and I had a discussion about a chemistry class that I didn't really want to offer in the first place, I now receive book after book on the topic.  Yes, I could send them back.  Yes, I should send them back.  Yes, sometimes I actually do send them back.  Usually, though, I just put them on my bookcase for the off chance that some day somebody will walk into my office and say, "Oh, goodie goodie, chemistry textbooks!  I was desperately seeking another chemistry textbook to read this weekend!" and I will be able to make him the happiest chemistry geek on the planet.  Which probably isn't all that grand, come to think of it, but hey, I usually hope for small but achievable things.

Today, in what should completely not surprise you by this point in the blog, I received a "free" book that actually sounded interesting to read.  I opened the package to find The Bedford Guide for College Writers, 9th Ed.  Oooh, a writing text!  This whole time, the majority of my learning has been from two sources: first, random and sometimes unknown people posting valid-sounding information to unverifiable web pages; and second, what some people call the School of Hard Knocks, where I pick a topic based on something I'm actually doing, right or wrong, or something I'm actually reading, right or wrong.  These are actually kinda tough learning sources, as it were.  In the case of the former, there's a TON of information out there, and I have to assume that some of it is correct.  I also, of course, have to assume the opposite.  The trick, then, is to figure out which case a site belongs to.  I've discovered a nearly foolproof method for this, but read the next part only if you want the spoiler: I say "eenie meenie miney moe" and then ask myself if I believe the site.  If the answer is yes, then it's clearly a case of either truth or lack thereof.  That wisdom aside...in the case of the latter, it can be tough to really determine how much of what we learn in the School of Hard Knocks (SOHK for short, which is an interesting acronym, yes?) is true. 

So...bring on the texts.  The joy of textbooks is that they're peer reviewed, which means that many experts in the field looked through it after the first expert wrote it.  There's a funny story about peer review, in fact, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, regarding when he served on a curriculum review committee for math education in California.  Everybody on the committee ranted and raved about how wonderful a three-volume set was, which left Mr. Feynman baffled because Books 2 and 3 had been shipped with blank pages.  Not some blank pages, mind you...two covers, and a table of contents, and the entirety of the book blank for each one.  Hey, I've been in education long enough to agree with the assertion that most math students would get as much out of that as they would out of texts with actual squiggly things printed on the pages, but apparently it bothered Feynman.  I guess I must admit that it would bother me in any topic other than math, a subject whose students would rather eat a live zombie one limb at a time than open the actual textbook, and this, then, lends some suspicion to the veracity of peer review. 

All that notwithstanding, I got a book today.  It was a textbook, and it was on writing.  Hallelujah!  I couldn't wait to open it once I got home, in part because I knew that by the time I opened it I would have a cold beer in my hand, but also because I wanted to see what was inside its 903 pages of wisdom. 

Where to start?  Since I'm doing revision, I decided, I should start in the chapter on revision.  All...hmm...18 pages on it.  I was already confused...revision is one of the most important things I do, I think.  Yet the topic only merits 18 of 903 pages?  Two percent?  Yeah, it makes for kind of crappy milk, too.  Still, the number of pages doesn't always indicate the relative importance, so I dove in. 

The contents were really relatively straightforward, and...well, what I already knew.  For example, in the "revising for purpose and thesis" section, it asks:

  • Does each part of your essay directly relate to your thesis?
  • Does each part of your essay develop and support your thesis?
  • Does your essay deliver everything your thesis promises?

Good questions, really, whether you assign the word "essay" or "novel" to them.  Then again, they're covered on nearly every Writing101.com/org/net/info/xmen/whatever page that exists.  Does every part of the novel advance the storyline?  Does each part support the storyline?  Bottom line: does it tell a dang good story? 

The rest of the chapter, sadly, reads the same way.  This book?  Going back to work to sit on that bookshelf, hoping that a writer comes in one day and says, "Oh, goodie goodie, a writing textbook!  I was desperately seeking another writing textbook to read this weekend!" and I will be able to make him the happiest writing geek on the planet. 


  1. HAHA At least now I know I'm not the only one who finds it hard to finish a book that doesn't hold my interest.

  2. Wow! A writing textbook!! Goodie!!! lol I would totally be interested.. if I didn't have a ton of those on my already dust filled shelves... Loved the blog, keep em coming!

  3. I find myself looking forward to reading your blog in the same way I look forward to the next chapter in a book that I love. Keep writing Stephen!