Eight Steps to Better Writing: A Review of Koerber and Allen’s Clear, Precise, Direct

by Nancy Bray, University of Alberta

Duncan Koerber and Guy Allen. Clear, Precise, Direct: Strategies for Writing. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Duncan Koerber and Guy Allen’s textbook Clear, Precise, Direct presents a straightforward program designed to improve the prose of beginning post-secondary writers. Novice writers, Koerber and Allen claim, can improve their prose in two to three months by following the eight lessons in the book, lessons which describe writing strategies such as developing a strong writing process, using words economically, finding strong verbs and nouns, applying the active voice, and using original language, parallelism, and varied sentence structure. Based on the authors’ many years of classroom experience, the textbook uses explanations, exercises, examples, and assignments to help students to identify interfering factors that detract from their writing and to practice enhancing factors that will improve it.

One unique feature of this textbook is its mix of examples from various types of writing. Koerber and Allen draw from professional writing, journalism, creative writing, and academic writing to make their case that clear, precise and direct writing is appreciated in many genres. For instance, the authors use Madam Justice Denise E. Bellamy’s report on the Toronto City Council’s computer leasing scandal—a surprisingly engaging read—to illustrate that bureaucratic writing can be compelling if wordiness is eliminated. This diversity of examples does not, however, render the textbook too broad for use in an academic writing classroom. Each chapter contains a section devoted to using the eight key strategies in academic writing, and the textbook often takes a hard stance against some of the commonly identified problems with our scholarly writing. “There is no excuse for wordiness in academia,” the authors write (p. 48), and the accompanying exercises in this section ask students to find examples of badly written academic texts and identify how they are ineffective (p. 37). While advanced university students might benefit from more nuanced discussions on academic writing (for instance, discussions on expert language and discourse community norms), pushing beginning academic writers to write clearly will likely eliminate excesses that we often see in student writing such as empty verbiage and commonplace generalizations.

Echoing the work of Peter Elbow, Koerber and Allen believe that assignments emphasizing personal narrative provide students with the opportunity to focus on writing, rather than on unfamiliar content. They contend that students who practice their key strategies while writing personal narrative will have an easier transition to the rigours of academic writing (p. 2). However, the authors do seem to recognize that some instructors and institutions may feel uncomfortable with a textbook that does not give students significant practice with academic writing. Each chapter in the textbook therefore ends with two peer models: one using personal narrative and one using a more traditional academic writing style, and the assignments at the end of the chapter are also similarly structured. Students are given the choice between writing on a personal topic or writing a research paper on particular topics, topics which have been deliberately chosen to encourage students to put into practice the key writing strategies explained in each chapter.

Instructors will find ample material in the textbook around which to build a course: there are several shorter exercises included at key points throughout each chapter that could be completed in class, and class discussions could be based on the rhetorical analysis questions that follow all of the peer models. The eight-chapter structure of the book may make it too short for the typical thirteen-week semester. As a result, instructors may want to incorporate additional material on revision, a topic which is only mentioned briefly by Koerber and Allen and which is a well-known problem area for many students. Donald Murray’s The Craft of Revision, with its similar friendly tone and approach, could be a strong companion textbook for a course based on Clear, Precise, Direct.

The personable tone and crisp explanations make this a good fit for first- and second-year introductory writing courses. In addition, advanced English as a Subsequent Language learners will appreciate the textbook’s clear language. Thanks to its well-structured material and clearly defined pedagogical goals, Clear, Precise, Direct is a strong textbook that will undoubtedly help many students to improve their writing.

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