Sunday, December 14, 2008

The “Extra” Art History Textbook: A Writing Manual Roundup

Art history textbooks are dry, encyclopedic, and non-controversial. They include every work of art except our favorites. We hear these complaints often, but nonetheless we use them. One way to spice up a course is to add extra readings. Some extras are practical references, such as writing manuals. Others cover theory or support specific assignments. This is the first in a series of posts on extra textbooks.

I know of two books specifically geared toward teaching writing in art history courses. They are Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art and Henry Sayre’s Writing About Art. Their strength lies in addressing common problems that students face in the art history classroom. I have found them to be useful guides for viewing assignments and research papers in introductory classes—which is their goal. For classes built around more complex writing, however, the books below are more appropriate.

Pedagogical research has shown that it is useful to break writing assignments into steps. Requiring multiple drafts of an assignment or smaller preparatory assignments that emphasize specific viewing, analytical, or research skills makes the process we expect more transparent and manageable for our students. One of the strengths of this approach to teaching writing is that it allows the instructor to discuss specific writing skills and strategies over the course of a semester. To do this I find that books which encourage students to think critically about their writing process to be most appropriate. Jeff Bollow’s Writing FAST: How to Write Anything with Lightning Speed and John Trimble’s Writing with Style are my favorites.

Students enjoy Writing FAST because it is written breezily and is filled with practical advice. Bollow is a screenwriter, but his method is intended to be useful for everyone. His argument is that beginning writers are often frustrated and waste time because they do not know the steps required or take them out of order. “FAST” is an acronym for these steps (Focusing ideas, Applying ideas to a structured writing format, Strengthening the writing through multiple drafts, and Tweaking the final version for good style). He includes sub-steps for clarity and summaries of each chapter. I have had success assigning the book in small chunks over an entire semester. When possible I discuss the ideas in class, but sometimes time runs short. In that case the students respond to the reading using an on-line discussion board that I require them to participate in.

Writing with Style is another superb guide. It acknowledges that the “rules” and “superstitions” about writing that students pick up in high school have some merit. The major strength of the book, however, is teaching when to break the rules. Compelling ideas should be conveyed with compelling language. And that often means experimenting with strategies that students fear—like dashes and ultra-short sentences. Examples of excellent writing are included throughout the text, and it is written in a conversational style. Trimble also discusses the mistakes that intermediate writers make in a straightforward way. The book ends with a chapter of quotations by famous authors about writing, discussing how they struggle with the process but ultimately find it rewarding.

I have not used them as textbooks, but a couple of other resources are worth noting for special situations. For students struggling with basic grammar and punctuation, William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style remains the standard. Its strength is thoroughness, but the text is dry. For students struggling to finish well-structured essays during exams I recommend Sanford Kaye’s Writing under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. It discusses the writing and grading of essay exams from both a student’s and an instructor’s viewpoint, which is insightful to both.


Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing About Art. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2008.

Bollow, Jeff. Writing FAST: How to Write Anything with Lightning Speed. St. Pauls: Embryo Films 2004.

Kaye, Sanford. Writing under Pressure: The Quick Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Sayre, Henry M. Writing About Art. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 50th Anniversary ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Please respond in the comments with your own thoughts on teaching writing.


Karla said...

This is a great roundup.

For next semester, I'm thinking that on the one hand I need to put more stress on visiting the writing tutors, and on the other hand I need to give more specific guidelines on how I want the papers written. Some students don't yet grasp that an article comparison requires analytical thought about how the articles are written, not just a summary of what the articles said, and that a research paper involves more than a high school report. It's easy for us to forget that not all students really understand what we want unless it's minutely spelled out--they may not have done these kinds of papers before. If the requirements are clear enough at the outset, it's easier to mark down the papers that don't comply, because then it's clear the writer wasn't paying attention.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Travis. Keep them comin'.