The 10 Best Books for College Composition

Teachers of college composition unite!  There is a specter haunting our classrooms and it’s publisher’s terrible textbooks.  Why am I such a naysayer?  Well, because most writing textbooks are awful.  It’s true.  I’ve taught composition for over twenty years and finding a “perfect fit” composition textbook is more difficult than finding an earthly soulmate. When book orders are due at the campus bookstore just keep in mind that your choices likely will be a compromise.  If you’re 100% satisfied with your choices and the results, then more power to you.  But most likely, you won’t be entirely satisfied and must become accustomed with the concept of compromise.  It’s not your fault.  In an effort to share my experiences and findings with those who teach transfer-level composition (First-Year Composition), here is my compromise 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 teaching academic rhetorical moves is controversial with composition specialists and many teachers who believe it’s like writing “by numbers.”  But for most first-year college students this is a winner and you can’t go wrong with it.  I love the integration of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game.” Great for teaching evals.  No handbook 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 combo.  There’s an edition of TS / IS with readings.  This doesn’t cover various genres, but primarily focuses on argumentative academic conversations and teaching the “conflicts.”
  2. John Trimble.  Writing with Style.  I’ve had a lot of success with this book.  Very accessible and doesn’t “talk down” to students.  Good general 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.
  3. Lynne Lerych & Allison Criswell.  Everything You Need to Know about College Writing.  This is a brand new book, so I haven’t had a lot of classroom trials with it.  So far I’ve heard mixed reviews, mainly positive.  Some students say they like how the chapters “break down” the writing process.  Others say they feel it’s a bit condescending because of the “reality check” dialogue cartoons and content.  In my estimation, this is a solid choice for pre-baccalaureate composition (a class below transfer-level) or it’s appropriate for the early weeks of a transfer-level composition class.  Overall, the chapters are concise, informative, accessible, and easy-going on student readers.  This would be a good choice for genre approaches and for those who emphasize critical thinking through the writing process.
  4. Andrea Lunsford, et. al.  Everyone’s an Author.  Personally, I’ve never liked this book but I recognize why it’s popular and why anyone would use it.  It emphasizes rhetoric and various genres of academic writing.  The readings tend to be pedestrian and bland for my taste, but that’s me.  It’s superior to the Norton Field Guide to Writing, which is an average “lowest common denominator” and “catch-all” kind of textbook (blah!).  Students find this to be informative and accessible.  I think I’d use it only in pre-baccalaureate composition.  It’s never quite felt like a genuine transfer-level text to me.  A bit too oriented to rhetorical instruction.
  5. Ruszkiewicz & Dolmage.  How to Write Anything.  I might place this book above the Lunsford.  I’d select the edition without readings and supplement with your own material–the readings are fairly weak.  A solid all-around textbook that students appreciate because of its scope and coverage of various writing situations.
  6. Greene & Lidinsky.  From Inquiry to Academic Writing.  There’s a “brief” version of this textbook.  It has many virtues in introducing students to academic writing.  I’m not fond of the majority of readings (a few are great) and the 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, readings, apparatus and it feels very “textbooky” unlike Trimble and Graff.  A bit large, textbooky, and clunky for my taste.  But it’s a solid and fair choice–a good introduction to academic writing.
  7.  Palmquist.  Joining the Conversation.   I want to love this book because it’s so well-informed and Palmquist is great.  But it’s a bit pricey and I dislike the odd textbook format.  Pictures.  However, this is a solid introduction to academic writing by an excellent composition specialist.
  8. Barnet & Bedau. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing.  This is a briefer version of Current Issues and Enduring Questions.  This isn’t strictly a critical thinking textbook and it likely deserves to be much higher on the list here.  This would be a great choice for instructors wanting a critical thinking emphasis in composition, or those who want to gently “lead” students from comp to critical thinking.  This book also has a briefer edition.  Both would be excellent for comp, critical thinking, and critical thinking through literature.  The readings are slightly weak but cover controversies and relevant debates.  I’d like to see more variety in the readings but I really can’t complain much with what’s here.  A solid overview.  Not super great but much less worse than a lot of comp / critical thinking textbooks that are too crowded with argument theory and/or rhetoric.
  9. Lunsford.  Everything is an Argument.   I’d use the edition WITHOUT readings.  The readings tend to be fairly terrible here.  They may work for some people but not for me.  Lots of rhetorical theory here, dowsed with logos, ethos, pathos.  Lots of pictures, graphics, multi-modal appeal.  Fairly accessible but a bit too busy for my tastes.  Not terrible, could be worse.  Solid for critical thinking & rhetoric approaches to comp.  Lunsford is right…let’s face it… everything is an argument…pretty much.
  10. Rottenberg.  The Structure of Argument.  This book is a bit thin and feels a bit textbooky but it’s a solid, popular choice for teaching critical thinking and argument in a comp class.
  11. Kennedy, et. al.  The Brief Bedford Reader.  I’ll include this–it’s mainly a reader with very decent selections and has some fairly decent instruction on writing.  A pretty good choice.


I didn’t include readers in this list.  Again, in the “reader” category most are terrible. But some of them are getting better, such as McQuade’s Writer’s Presence, The Norton Reader, and Eschholz’s Language Awareness.  Some readers are getting worse, such as the latest edition of Bartholomae’s Ways of Reading.  Perhaps the upcoming edition will be improved. I hope this list is helpful.  Good luck and best wishes!