A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

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Applying Bad Ideas About Writing to Research. Review by Brian Urias

Bad Ideas About Writing may have been directed toward the public in an effort to mitigate popular misconceptions, but we think the book also has some benefit for researchers in various fields associated with writing—rhetoric, composition, literature, and communication, to name a few—as well as professionals outside these fields.

Because the essays were so brief in their discussions of the “bad ideas,” the book likely has limited value as a source in its own right for most research purposes. One of the text’s greatest strengths—the brevity of its essays and the relative simplicity with which the topics are discussed for a public audience—was in this regard a drawback. The majority of the essays in the book present, in essence, summarized knowledge that was created, in many cases, over decades, and therefore is considered “common knowledge” within writing studies. (I do not wish to imply that this common knowledge is universally accepted, but most compositionists, I dare say, have familiarity with, if not appreciation for, most of the concepts presented in Bad Ideas About Writing.)

This common knowledge, presented simply, will provide scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition with few new insights—although the variety of misconceptions addressed and their underlying areas of subject specialization should provide the benefit of keeping highly specialized researchers abreast of other concepts within rhetoric and composition and less experienced scholars may discover new avenues for their own developing professional interests. In the same way that an encyclopedia is useful for providing cursory information and introducing a topic to the uninitiated but not as useful for examining the finer details and complexities of a subject, Bad Ideas About Writing would not provide very much to experienced scholars in the way of its direct content.

Writing’s ubiquity means it requires attention of virtually all fields and disciplines, but the presence of widespread, persistent misconceptions about writing and the inexperience with writing studies of experts in other fields mean that a resource clearing up such misconceptions with little jargon could be invaluable.

The bulk of the text may not offer immediate usefulness to researchers, but this is not to say that nothing is to be gained. Bad Ideas About Writing should work well as a resource directory. Each essay offered numerous resources to consider and consume in its “Further Reading” section. Seasoned researchers will likely be familiar with a significant number of these works, but less experienced researchers will certainly find new gems that relate to their professional interests. Due to the volume of additional materials endorsed, even veteran researchers may discover resources they haven’t engaged with or that they hadn’t known about. While a few of the book’s contributors provided a very digestible list of further readings to the public—at least one section provides two sources in one succinct paragraph (p. 218)—many of them offered a generous selection of texts. Certainly, even experienced scholars may find gems of slightly different cuts to what they’re accustomed to dealing with.

Another great use of Bad Ideas About Writing for researchers, however, may come from outside the field of rhetoric and composition or English studies. Because of the accessibility of the text, professionals in other fields may encounter ideas that are of tangential benefit to their work. Writing’s ubiquity means it requires attention in virtually all fields and disciplines, but the presence of widespread, persistent misconceptions about writing and the inexperience with writing studies of experts in other fields mean that a resource clearing up such misconceptions with little jargon could be invaluable. Professionals who may need to investigate communication in their respective fields and workplaces might find some value in Bad Ideas About Writing.

Finally, like any well kept bibliography, the “Further Reading” sections that accompany each essay can also be used to jog memories for those moments when a scholar knows a concept but can’t quite remember a source that discusses it. I put this claim to the test by remembering that a colleague wanted a source that addressed the saturation of adjunct instructors in composition. Seth Kahn’s further readings includes a joint report by the Modern Language Association and Association of Departments of English about the economy of English department staffing, which I hope was helpful for my colleague. The accessibility of the book makes it especially useful for such referencing and reminding.