Book Review of A Sequence for Academic Writing (5th ed.), by Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen
[Please note: I read the fifth edition, but there is a sixth edition available.]
I picked this book up while browsing in the language arts section of a local discount bookstore, hoping that it would give me some ideas for substantive feedback I could give on theses and other graduate student materials that come my way. It’s a text book meant to accompany a course on writing, probably targeting first- and second-year undergraduates, but students at any level who haven’t taken such a course can probably benefit from its instructional style.
Laurence Behrens and Leonard Rosen begin by sketching out different ways of understanding and interpreting text in a chapter on “Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Quoting,” anchoring this sequence on writing firmly in the process of reading. Academic writing is a form of conversation one has with one’s predecessors in the field, and this book is designed to help the student learn to formulate his or her side of that conversation. The skills of summary, paraphrase, and quotation sound basic, but if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on them early on, there may be problems with how he or she engages with and synthesizes research materials later on. I’ve covered topics in this blog that rely directly on developing these approaches.
The remainder of the book develops from this foundation, introducing students to the methods that go into writing papers from their earliest concepts to their final drafts. There is a heavy emphasis on revision, which is a part of the process that I must admit I did not have a thorough appreciation for until I became an editor.
Some of the most valuable content in A Sequence for Academic Writing is in the examples of readings a student might have to analyze and discuss and in the examples of before-and-after drafts of student writing. The sample first draft in the chapter on explanatory synthesis includes an instructor’s comments; a final draft of the same paper incorporates those comments, while Behrens and Rosen explain how the first draft transitions into the final. The difference between the drafts is huge yet realistic and illustrates how careful and conscientious revision can transform a writer’s thoughts and product.
While I can’t speak to how broadly or narrowly college courses overall manage to teach this depth of revision, I can suggest that from my own experience as both a student and a teacher, it’s very possible either for such instruction not to happen or for students not to absorb it if it does.
Although I know we were taught about the value of revision in high school, for instance, I really couldn’t say for certain whether we were taught the nuts and bolts of how to actually do it. I don’t remember ever writing substantive revisions of my papers as an undergrad, and even when I was in grad school, my second and later drafts contained mostly cosmetic improvements and moderate reorganization over the first, rather than qualitative shifts in engagement.
Learning how to perform a substantive revision outside of a dedicated writing course is difficult for several reasons. Substantive revision means pulling oneself out of one mental framework (the one you were in when you wrote the first draft) and shifting into a different one. This is even harder to do when the academic schedule is tight and you don’t have time to set the paper aside for a week or two between drafts, which could have aided in that mental shift; it also almost requires feedback from the instructor or another critical reader. Heavy-writing humanities courses end up being heavy-reading courses, as well, so students are asked both to learn about the subject matter and to write papers on it at the same time, which crunches the schedule further and makes true revising a time-consuming indulgence that only exceptional time managers (and how many college students manage time exceptionally?) can achieve.
Revision, in short, is a skill that a lot of students just don’t master, but Behrens and Rosen provide a helpful tool that is likely to be missing for many. This particular area resonated with me because I could recognize where my own undergraduate writing fell short, but other readers might find other topics to be more useful for their own needs.
I read the fifth edition, but the book is currently in its sixth. I am sure the advice hasn’t changed, but it’s possible some of the many examples of source essays have. The fifth edition includes essays about such topics as space elevators, Abraham Lincoln, and the tradeoff between privacy and protection on college campuses. These essays—mostly articles and excerpts from periodicals—provide readily available raw material about which students can write their own analyses. Behrens and Rosen have done an exceptional job of finding material that is both interesting and timely. The most notable topic among them is on job stability in a changing economy in which geography matters less and less; as if to underline their importance to students' near futures, the authors have included this topic not only in the first chapter but in a final section and exercise at the end.
This selection of articles, compiled to provide writing students sources on a topic they can write about, also gives readers a perspective on this evolving job market and what they need to do to remain relevant in it; the suggestions include choosing a career that can only be performed face-to-face and making oneself so specialized that one’s skills cannot be replaced. By including articles on a topic so apropos to college students, the authors increase the likelihood that students will pay attention to the book’s instruction in the present and remember it in the future.
I often find myself applying Behrens and Rosen’s principles to material I edit, which suggests that some of it could be conducted at the author’s end before I receive it. I certainly don’t mind when it isn’t—it’s work that I love to do!—but authors hoping to cut down on their editing bills might find it useful to work through a course like this, whether at their college or university or, if they’re out of school, by self-teaching with a book like A Sequence for Academic Writing.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.