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

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Textual Overview by Ran Meyer

Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, contains an introduction and eight chapters setting forth 63 essays (including the introduction) on such various topics as what makes good writing, writing processes, writers, writing teachers, and teaching of writing. Thoughtful and well written, the text takes its lead from rhetoric and composition scholarship since the 1990s onward to address well-entrenched convictions—the “bad” ideas—about writing and its instruction. For some, the title Bad Ideas About Writing is perhaps a misnomer, for the text sets forth just as many, if not more, good ideas about writing as it does “bad” ones.

The 382-page book is open-access and available to a wide range of readers, from teachers to students, parents, and, actually, anyone interested in writing and/or its instruction. While the text claimed a wide potential audience, many sections were aimed primarily at writing educators, a primary audience that can be inferred from such subjects chosen for the text as the policing of plagiarism and the use of SAT scores to decide placement. The text seems especially useful for newcomers to the teaching of writing, especially undergraduate and graduate students whose review of professional literature is in its earlier stages. Some rhetoric and writing faculty may consider requiring the text in composition workshops for first-term teaching assistants and similar courses.

The text is a timely one, addressing a number of ideas that can now safely be labelled “bad” when viewed in the light of composition research and scholarship. But it also includes some ideas whose “badness” remains for many controversial.

The structure of the essays is fairly uniform. Each of the 62 main essays stated a perceived “bad idea,” one entrenched in academia or the public imagination of writers and writing. Most essays used the “bad” idea as a starting point to posture some good ideas about writing. Suggestions for further reading and a brief biographical sketch of the author follow. Including the suggested readings and biography, the average length of the essays is about three pages. Writers set out a few good ideas and rely upon readers to follow up with the suggested further reading to broaden the scope and depth of good ideas. Akin to previews, the essays selected for this volume are not comprehensive, nor are they intended to be.

The titles of the essays articulated the “bad idea” to be addressed. Thus, the essay titles sometimes require a little reverse thinking, or mental gymnastics, to see an essay’s true direction. This juggling is part of the fun, actually, as readers play with such titles as Brooks’ “The Passive Voice Should Be Avoided.”

The collection itself often reflected the fact that writing and its teaching defy discrete categorization with some chapters overlapping and ideas regarding some subjects. In this regard, plagiarism, emerging in multiple chapters, is emblematic.

The further readings are useful to follow up on the complexity of the subject and often note exceptions. They are, thus, part of the gold of the collection and spark interest in debate. For those interested in further study, the suggested readings serve to flesh out both the reasoning and practicalities of the good ideas presented in the collection.