The 10 Best Books for College Composition

I’ve taught various levels of composition for over twenty years and finding a “perfect fit” composition textbook seems to be as difficult as finding an earthly soulmate.  Often we don’t know what texts to choose or where to turn for advice and suggestions.  In the end, textbook choices are more or less a compromise.

My suggestion is to align books and materials with the course student learning outcomes (SLO’s) which can be found in most course outlines. Also, it may be a good idea to consult the Writing Program Administrators (WPA) outcomes.  Here’s a link to an excellent article which offers a solid overview of several writing textbooks.

In an effort to share my experiences and findings with those who teach transfer-level composition (First-Year Composition), here is my list of Affordable Top Ten Composition Textbooks:

  1.  Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein.  They Say / I Say.  This book is extremely popular with students.  It’s one of a few books that students actually use when they write papers.  Its templates approach to rhetorical “academic moves” is controversial with many composition specialists who believe it’s like writing “by the numbers” and too cookie cutter (like pouring batter into muffin tins).  But most first-year college students report that this small text is a winner.  It has many virtues.  First, “quotation sandwich.”  Tremendous value.  Framing, explaining, and commenting on quotes.  Where do we get ideas?  Often in response to “They Say” (quotes). Second, I love the integration of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game.”  Super valuable. Weaknesses: lacks coverage of textual analysis.  Weak instruction on revision, editing and proofreading.  No handbook or research / MLA documentation section included (you can supplement with the inexpensive Little Seagull Handbook for a discounted rate via W.W. Norton).  They Say / I Say + The Little Seagull Handbook is a fine, affordable combination.  There’s an edition of TS / IS with readings.  This doesn’t cover various genres, but primarily focuses on argumentative academic conversations and the “conflicts.”  Some students report that the language and topics are redundant.  If this book could be written in bullet points, then it would be even more popular than it is…
  2. John Trimble.  Writing with Style.  I’ve had lots of success with this book.  Very accessible and doesn’t talk down to students.  Equitable tone.  No templates but plenty of examples. A good all-around “how to” manual for mainly expository writing.  Terrible chapters on editing and proofreading, but the first chapters on invention and organizing introductions (openers), body paragraphs (middles), and conclusions are solid. Straightforward, no nonsense, no pictures or diagrams, accessible.  Each chapter ends with a summary.   A classic for good reason (if a tad dated–needs to be updated).
  3. Axelrod & Cooper.  Reading Critically, Writing Well.  Similar to the text below (#5) but slightly superior to it–perhaps it may be considered a continuation of it.  Focuses on genres (autobiography, position, evaluation, causes, etc).  Contains material on critical thinking.  Decent readings.  Really good instruction, examples, sample essays…very thorough…one of the best comp books on the market…
  4. Lunsford.  Everything is an Argument.  This is a very sensible book, a solid choice, and likely deserves to be higher on this list (at least #2 or #3).  I’ve combined this book with Graff’s TS/IS successfully–a nice pairing.  I prefer the less clunky edition without readings.  The sixth edition with readings is available online as a free PDF. No genres.  Lots of rhetorical theory here presented in appealing ways–individual chapters on logos, ethos, pathos.  Lots of pictures, graphics, multi-modal appeal. Accessible. The pages are a bit busy.  Solid for critical thinking and rhetorical approaches to comp.  Lunsford is right…let’s face it… everything is an argument…pretty much…Students actually say that this book is “interesting.”
  5. Axelrod & Cooper.  The Concise St. Martin’s Guide to Writing.   A compact or concise edition of the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing.  This is a popular text that covers various genres, moving from personal narrative to academic writing.  Very good examples and instruction.  The readings are slightly weak.  Includes MLA and APA documentation.  Supplement this text with Sticks and Stones for a student writing centered class.  May need to supplement readings–perhaps Cohen’s 50 Essays.
  6. Barnet & Bedau. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing.  This is a brief version of Current Issues and Enduring Questions.  This isn’t strictly a critical thinking textbook and it likely deserves to be higher on the list.  This would be a solid choice for instructors wanting a critical thinking emphasis in composition or for those who want to gently lead students from comp to critical thinking.  The readings are slightly weak, covering controversies and relevant debates but I’ve seen much worse selections.  Not too crowded with argument theory and/or rhetoric.  A very reasonable choice.  I could see using this in critical thinking through literature, perhaps paired with an inexpensive lit anthology.
  7. Andrea Lunsford, et. al.  Everyone’s an Author.  Personally, I’m not terribly fond of this book, but I recognize why it’s popular and why others use it.  A bit too glossy for me. Perhaps slightly uninspired.  It emphasizes rhetoric and various writing genres–from personal to academic.  The readings tend to be fairly pedestrian and bland for my taste, but that’s me.  Students find this text to be informative, direct, and accessible.  I think I’d use it only in pre- baccalaureate composition.
  8. Ruszkiewicz & Dolmage.  How to Write Anything.  I might place this book above the previous  Lunsford.  I’d select the edition without readings and supplement with your own material–the readings are fairly weak and dull.  A solid all-around textbook that students appreciate because of its scope and coverage of various writing situations.  Students find lots of value with this.
  9. Greene & Lidinsky.  From Inquiry to Academic Writing.  A “brief” practical guide is also available.  It has many virtues in introducing students to academic writing.  I’m not fond of the majority of readings (a few are great)–a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) approach.  But it could be for you and your students.  I find the pages to be a bit too crowded with information and instructional apparatus.  Tries to do a lot of things all at once.  A bit large, textbooky, and clunky for my tastes.  But it’s a solid and fair choice–a good introduction to academic writing.
  10. Rottenberg.  The Structure of Argument.  This book is somewhat thin and feels textbooky but it’s a solid, popular choice for teaching critical thinking and argument in a comp class.
  11. Bloom & Smith.  The Arlington Reader.  I’ll include this text–it’s mainly a reader with very good selections and has some good instruction on writing.  A solid choice.
  12. Bullock, et. al.  The Norton Field Guide to Writing.  This is a popular text.  Bare bones instruction.  Not terribly inspired.  Minimalist chapters (maybe too minimalist–many instructors supplement chapters with additional material). Covers various genres from personal narrative (literacy narrative) to academic writing.  Readings are a bit blah and uninspired. Different editions available–with handbook, with readings, with handbook and readings.

Omitting #11, I didn’t include readers in the list.  But most of the above texts include brief readings.

If you need help planning and organizing your comp course (i.e., sample syllabi, lesson plans, etc) and want an overview of the field, then I HIGHLY recommend the St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing and Teaching Composition.

I hope this post is helpful.  Good luck and best wishes!


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