4 Essentials to Look For in a Writing Handbook

September 13, 2011

Attention college students: as you get settled into your new fall classes and start shopping for the best textbook prices, here are a few things to look for in a writing handbook that will help with your term papers and essay assignments.

Once you get past the introductory writing courses like English 101, your professors are going to expect competent, college-level writing in your assigned essays without giving you a lot of steps and support. Hopefully you learned all of the basics from English 101, and even if you did, an excellent writing handbook can provide a lot of quick support and resources at your fingertips.

All college writing handbooks will give you the basics about starting your essay (brainstorming, mapping, outlining, and drafting), and all handbooks will give you the grammar basics (how to make sure your sentence isn’t a fragment and how to tell if your sentence has a comma splice), but here are a few things to look for in a writing handbook that offer extra support to make your writing shine during college (and maybe beyond college too).

Have you selected a college writing handbook yet? Image credit: Unhindered by Talent, flickr.com

#1 – Sentence Style

In the beginning of your undergraduate days, you will probably be most concerned with creating error-free sentences. However, as you go deeper into your degree field and start taking upper-level courses, correctness is no longer enough; you want to have style. Learning the intricacies of subordination is essential for advanced college-level writing, especially if you want to go on to graduate school. It takes a lot of practice. For example, do you know how to use parallelism in order to convey the multi-part meaning of a complex idea, capture your audience’s attention through stylistic devices, and display a sophisticated level of critical thinking with your grammar? Make sure your handbook has an entire section on sentence style that gives plenty of ideas and instructions for a variety of sentences.

#2 – MLA/APA Updates

Your professors will expect you to use MLA or APA format (or maybe something else) to document your sources. Make sure your writing handbook has the latest updates. For example, MLA format has now been updated so students no longer need to include cumbersome urls in their citations. As far as I can tell, most of the updates for documenting electronic and online sources are very helpful for students, so it’s better to make sure you’re using the new format.

#3 – Glossary of Style and Usage

There are a lot of things in college writing that your spellchecker will not pick up. For example, do you know whether or not to use “toward” or “towards”? “Further” or “farther”? “Hanged” or “hung”? Do you know the differences between “lay,” “lie,” and “laid”? Should you capitalize seasons? A good glossary of usage will provide easy answers to all of these things and a lot more. If you think your professors don’t notice stuff like this, you’re wrong. They notice, and it doesn’t take very many little usage errors to add up and make an overall bad impression.


Use a writing handbook to easily develop a spiffy resume. Image credit: The CV Inn, flickr.com

#4 – Resumes and Cover Letters

During college and after, you’re going to need to make awesome resumes and cover letters for job hunting. All of the lessons of effective college writing come into play with these documents that can make or break your job search: how to write for a specific audience (your prospective employer), how to craft concise and impactful sentences, how to persuade, how to use powerful verbs for dynamic style. Making a perfect resume and cover letter is an art form–it takes style. In addition to these features, there are very specific conventions regarding format and presentation for resumes and cover letters. Too many people stop at correct format without making their sentences powerful. You want your writing handbook to give you all of this information within easy reach. Spend at least as much time editing and revising your resume as you would a college term paper that is ten times as long.

Some of you out there might be thinking, why should I bother paying for a writing handbook when all of this information is available online? It’s true that you can find most of this information online, but you have to find it first. As a working writer myself, I can tell you it is much more time consuming to go searching for a usage question online (and sort through all the results that pop up) than it is to flip open my handbook, which is always sitting on my desk.

Do you have any questions about finding a writing handbook? Or do you have any other questions that you always wanted to ask your professors but were afraid to ask? Leave your questions in the comments section and I can give you all of the inside information.

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