Book Review: A Manual for Writers

By Mark Nichol

I was prepared to have to slog through Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations — I mean, just read that title again — in order to review it, but to my surprise, I found it (in parts, at least) rather appealing.

To be fair, this isn’t your father’s Turabian. The seventh edition of the book that has become the standard resource for how to prepare academic research papers still has the byline of the University of Chicago Press dissertation secretary who compiled the original iteration as a booklet in 1937 — it was published in booklet form ten years later and debuted as a book in 1955 — but it has changed a lot over the years.

Most significantly, since the sixth edition, published in 1996, it has been overhauled to reflect the ubiquity of the Internet and other recent technological advances and, in addition to a reorganization, has acquired a major new section that transforms it from a dry abridgement of sister publication The Chicago Manual of Style to a friendly guide to the qualitative aspects of developing a research paper or similar document.

It is this new component that I was intrigued to discover, because it provides great advice not just for students and others in an academic context but also anyone who needs or wants to create a thesis (and I use that word in the lay sense, of a proposition for the topic of an article, essay, book, or other content).

In part 1, “Research and Writing: From Planning to Production,” Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams (adapting their book Craft of Research) discuss the nature of research and the three distinct types of questions that researchers ask, walking readers through the process of shaping a topic into a working hypothesis and evaluating the most suitable sources for the particular research assignment.

Subsequent chapters in this section cover note taking, preparing an argument, and developing a first draft. A key part of this last chapter cautions against inadvertent plagiarism: Few students or researchers consciously present the work of others as their own, but the authors detail how even well-meaning writers, through carelessness or ignorance, can fail to adequately credit or effectively paraphrase sources.

Extensive guidance follows about presenting data visually, and then the authors describe how to polish the draft into a final version, attending not only to organization but also to rewriting at the word and sentence level.

The middle third of A Manual for Writers covers how to cite sources, and the final section shadows The Chicago Manual of Style in guiding writers on spelling, punctuation, distinctions between proper and common nouns, numbers, abbreviations, quotations, and graphic elements. However, the section on quotations goes far beyond Chicago in advising about how to modify quotations (without changing the wording) to fit them into a framing sentence and how to insert editorial comments or omit irrelevant phrases.

An appendix concerning format and submission requirements is also useful. Overall, Turabian remains a valuable handbook for researchers and for writers in general. The citation section is extraneous for lay writers, but the style section supplies the basics from Chicago without either that tome’s details about documenting sources or its arcana about editing and book production. The extensive advice about honing one’s thesis, however, is what clinches the deal.

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1 Response to “Book Review: A Manual for Writers”

  • Dale A. Wood

    When my father was writing his dissertation for a doctorate in education (an Ed.D.) back in the mid-1960s, he had a secret weapon:
    my Mother, who was a crackerjack junior high school English teacher (one of the very best). Mother proofread and edited everthing.
    Then when it came time for the six members of my father’s doctoral committee to read and review his dissertation not only for its content, but also for its exposition, not one of them found a writing error that was worth mentioning.

    His department had a copy of his dissertation put “on reserve” in the University library as an example of a well-written dissertation in the field of education, and school administration in particular. Then the future students in the same field could check it out and take it to a desk there to read it.

    I went to the same junior high school where Mother taught, and so did my sister one year behind me in school, though we didn’t have Mother for a teacher, too. The whole family decided to avoid that complictation. However, many of my friends had Mother for their English teacher, and some of them in both the 7th grade and the 9th grade. Several of my old friends have told me that Mother really got them started off on writing and speaking correctly, leading them to positions like that of the editor of their college newspaper.

    As for my sister and me, she turned out to be an M.D., a general surgeon, and I turned out to be an electrical engineer and a mathematician. In my case, I have worked for a couple of different engineering consulting companies where most of our “product” was written reports. At one of my companies, I jestingly asked my boss if we were going to be “paid by the inch” – in the thickness of our reports, and he replied that sometimes it is like that!
    I was surely thankful for word-processing programs on personal computers. We used those all the time.

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