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Pedagogy 4.3 (2004) 495-500

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This Is Wondrous Strange

Adios, Strunk and White: A Handbook for the New Academic Essay. 3rd ed. Gary and Glynis Hoffman. Huntington Beach, CA: Verve, 2003.

Ever since my first semester of teaching, I have found myself struggling to explain to diligent students why they received a B instead of an A on an essay, when they had fulfilled all the requirements of the assignment. The position is awkward because I know when a student's writing is not A quality, but I have no satisfactory explanation why. What I have not been able to describe is the intangible element of good writing, so difficult to outline on a prompt, even when we know what it is called: style, pizzazz, personality—artistic, inspired writing.

Now, thanks to Adios, Strunk and White, I have a means of articulating my answer, which is sometimes as simple as "no flow; no pause" or "awkward twist ties." If these terms sound unfamiliar, they are meant to be. The Hoffmans promise, and deliver, a textbook without what they call "teacherese." This quirky writing manual not only offers a vocabulary for explaining the subtle techniques of crafty writers; more important, it provides solid, descriptive teaching techniques that elevate student writing to a new level—one with voice, personality, and creativity. [End Page 495]

Adios is primarily a style guide but not one that promotes a series of rules for writers to follow. Instead, it acknowledges that good style is primarily an exercise in creativity. This textbook is for writing teachers who wonder why so often we teach generic introductions, formulaic transitions, variations of the five-paragraph essay, and other writing guidelines that are never used in the "real" world (let alone the academic world). Take a look at your latest Harper's Magazine, and you will see in practice all the Adios writing techniques, very few of which are ever taught in the writing classroom. Of course, most of us are not teaching future Harper's authors, or even students who read Harper's; in fact, many of us teach basic writers or apathetic freshman composition students. But the first step toward teaching them to write is to teach them to like writing.

Fortunately, for those of us with the challenge of changing students' perceptions of writing after years of ice-cold research papers, the Hoffmans—clearly energetic and creative teachers and writers—put their spirit and personality in the pages of this textbook. If you fondly remember that slightly quirky, edgy, anecdotally inclined, Larry David-ish, button-pushing college teacher who kept you on the edge of your seat, and especially if you want to be that teacher in your students' minds, then this book is for you.

At first, students may find Adios overwhelming and shocking, because the approach is so different from their usual textbooks, and the directions and tasks often require that they reject rules beaten into their heads by high school teachers. Students are also intrigued and confused by the bad words, contemporary references, slang, and comic nature of the examples. You can see their minds spinning as they try to process a writing textbook that is witty, quirky, and imaginative.

Adios begins with sentence-level instruction, forcing students to build complex sentences—you know, the kind that most high school teachers call run-on sentences, but that are used in every published piece of writing—by what the Hoffmans term "freighting" and "telescoping." These methods give students the tools to create lengthy, descriptive sentences by exaggerating the technique at first, with sentences so long—six lines typed each—that they are fun to write and funny to read. The book leads students through the process by beginning with a simple sentence: "Bill, my aunt Tina, and all their cronies chewed a red apple," and adding details and descriptive phrases to expand on the basic thought: "Bill, my aunt Tina, and all their cronies, chopped, chewed, and utterly pulverized the red, hard, juicy, candied apple, and the mud brown, crumbling cookies, scattershot with chocolate chips." [End Page 496...


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