Buying books for college is expensive.
Like me, you may have spent an hour scouring the university bookstore, looking for the best-priced used textbooks to save some money. Then maybe you hunt online for more bargain textbooks. Even if you find “gently-used books,” those dollars add up. So it’s tough to decide what books to invest in on top of your required texts. When I put together this list of must-have college writing books, I wanted to make this list short.
I also aimed to pick valuable books that will help you beyond one class, one semester, or even one year of your university program. The five books that follow are ones I used as a student and again as an instructor. I use them today with my tutoring students which is why they are piled on my bookcase my desk so I can grab them quickly.
Note: I am not an affiliate sponsor of these books or authors. I just believe these books will transform your writing.
Now, let’s dive into these 5 excellent writing books!
5 Essential College Writing Books
#1 The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
The Elements of Style provides sound advice on how to make writing clear, concise, and strong. The focus isn’t so much on grammar as using the language and developing a writing style. The chapters cover punctuation and parts of speech, guidelines for composition, form, and writing style.
The book has a unique history. William Strunk Jr., a Cornell University English Professor, wrote the first edition. Strunk Jr. used it for courses where one student, Elwyn Brooks White (E.B. White), read and studied it. Years later, Macmillian Publishing asked the author E.B. White to revise and edit the book for publication. At this time, E.B. White wrote the fifth chapter, “An Approach to Style.” He also edited other parts of the book.
There are other versions of The Elements of Style with other authors instead of E.B. White, but I prefer the Strunk Jr. and White editions. Most people prefer this edition, too, since it’s the number #1 Best-Selling Grammar Reference book on Amazon.
The Elements of Style has some biases and rules that differ from other writing and grammar books. Note: The rule about using commas in a series differs depending on what type of English you write (American English, British English, etc.) and the writing style in your genre or field. The debate about comma rules has gone on for decades. Here is the viewpoint of Strunk Jr.
Strunk Jr. states a writer should place a comma after every item in a series except the last item before a conjunction (and, nor, or,).
- Example: The ice cream came in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and coffee flavors. Many writers follow this rule.
Other writers (like me) use what is called the Oxford Comma. An Oxford Comma is where you put a comma after every item in a list.
- Example: The ice cream came in chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and coffee flavors.
The comma controversy is one example, but there are other writing style issues writers debate too. However, even if you disagree with some of the authors’ views and advice, you should read the book and absorb the knowledge. After all, E.B. White wrote the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web.
#2 Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T.O’Conner
I first read Woe is I when I was tutoring an academic writing course at Skidmore College. I was always looking for a grammar book that was easy to understand and entertaining–this book is it. O’Connor writes about grammar as one who deals with professional writing, which as a former New York Times Book Review editor, she did.
She writes a book that will ease your fears of grammar. It’s helpful as a reference because it covers punctuation, parts of speech, and aspects of writing style like clichés. You’ll also find a handy list of contractions you can print and a list of contractions you should never use in writing like: Could’ve, How’d, That’d, etc.
Note: When purchasing a grammar book of any kind, make sure you purchase the latest edition of it. Grammar is a living, breathing thing that changes. If you purchase Woe is I: Ther Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, buy the (2019) fourth edition.
Also, keep in mind this book applies to American English; other versions of English (Australian, British, Canadian) have slightly different rules.
#3 Your Subject Area’s Style and Reference Guide
Yes, websites like the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) cover many elements of APA, Chicago Style, and MLA. And there are citation programs like Chegg’s citation machine where you can add source information, and those programs give you the correct citation and reference format.
But, those resources and tools do not include everything you need to know about your field’s reference style.
You’ll find that information about writing style (special rules for hyphens, when to use italics, translating a title from one language to another) is hard to find online.
If you have your field’s reference and style handbook, you can answer those questions in a few minutes and have a clear explanation about those rules.
You’ll also learn about writing style and formatting in a reference book. The most common reference style in English 101 classes is MLA. The English, languages, literature, history, and other humanities use MLA reference style.
However, many fields like business, technology, and the sciences use The American Psychological Association (APA) Reference Style.
Here’s a list of the most common reference style guides:
- The MLA Handbook Ninth Edition by the Modern Language Association of America.
- The Publication Manual for the American Psychological Association (APA) Seventh Edition by the American Psychological Association
- The Chicago Manual of Style Seventeenth Edition
#4 They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein
When I taught College Writing and Writing for Graduate School to international students at Northeastern University, this book was required reading. They Say, I Say, goes through different phrases and constructions one can use in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein show people how to engage in academic written discussions.
You’ll learn different ways to quote, summarize, disagree with another scholar, and connect ideas. It is excellent for people new to academic language and writing and will help you write words and phrases in almost every aspect of writing.
There are lists of verbs for different ways of summarizing and quoting to help you decide how to introduce another person’s point of view. They have verbs for:
- Making a claim
- Expressing Agreement
- Questioning of Disagreeing
- Making Recommendations (Graff and Birkenstein 40-41).
The problem some people have with the book is that it includes templates for different skills. The writer in me agrees that this book can cause “template writing.”
Yet, for my students who were unsure what phrases to use in Academic English, these templates helped them. However, the templates don’t foster original writing. It’s ideal for some students who need to learn more academic language.
If you are familiar with the academic language, you may want to skim the chapters and avoid the templates.
# 5 Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
Yes, this isn’t an academic writing book. Yes, Natalie Goldberg focuses on the process of writing and activities to help readers become “writers.” It’s not about grammar, references, or academic language.
So, why did it make my list of college writing books?
Goldberg’s book is a classic writing book from a time where people used typewriters instead of computers. But as it was then and still is now, Writing Down The Bones is like a mini writing class from a fantastic (and cool) teacher. You’ll learn how to make your writing concrete, clear and striking. The chapters cover the habits and practice of writing, writing topics, and how to add detail to your writing.
One of the best things I learned from this book was freewriting. Freewriting is where you write whatever is on your mind for a set amount of time without censoring it, changing it, or correcting it. I do this with all my students because those who freewrite 3-5 times per week become better writers (and academic writers) faster than those who don’t or won’t do it.
Read and use Writing Down the Bones to develop your writing skills—just gloss over the references about smoking. Learn more about Natalie Goldberg and this book at https://nataliegoldberg.com/books/writing-down-the-bones/.
Which College Writing Books Should You Get?
I understand how expensive textbooks are. Your textbooks can cost around $200 dollars a semester. Can you forego these books? The truth is sloppy and shoddy writing costs you. It costs you good grades. Invest in learning how to write well through classes, books, resources, and tools.
Each of these college writing books helps you become a better writer. But, if you cannot afford all 5, start with the first 3 books: The Elements of Style, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, and your major’s reference style handbook.
Add Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within after that, and if you struggle with academic language, definitely buy They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Don’t just rely on websites to answer your writing questions, use books! They are the most credible references you can have at your fingertips.
Do you struggle with APA and MLA Styles?
Join my Facebook Group, The Academic Writing Success Community https://www.facebook.com/groups/academicwritingsuccesscommunity, and follow me on my Academic Reading Adventure.
I will read both the APA Manual and MLA Handbook and post a tip from one chapter each weekday!