Let me introduce you to the main characters in the story of composition. Our hero—the protagonist—is known as “the writer,” who is supported by both the writing instructor—our hero’s mentor traditionally—and the reference guide. And of course, as is necessary in all good stories, there is the antagonist—the evil force that our hero must contend with; in this tale the “writing” will be the daunting task that is loathed and dreaded by our hero.
Where once the teaching of composition was left primarily to English teachers, there are now other sources—namely reference guides on writing—that claim to have the formula for success. There are a number of publishers who have capitalized on employing rhetorical strategies of sarcasm and humor to gain a larger share of the reference guide market. In this paper I will examine a few of these writing guides—specifically: Barron’s Painless Writing, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Well, and Research Papers for Dummies—that have become so popular, extracting how they position the writer, the instructor and the writing process, as well as considering the usefulness of these texts for English 131 student1.
It is clear that these books are appropriating similar generic features to appeal to a certain type of audience. Humor is the main component used by all, from the title that refers to the person using the book as a self-proclaimed “dummy” or “idiot”—clearly an intelligent person would not be reading the “idiot’s guide—to the cartoons and jokes that fill the pages. On the cover and back of each book, they make their claims about what the offer the student. Each guide claims to provide advice that will “help” writers to “improve” or “transform” their writing with very similar language: Painless Writing offers “detailed advice” and “tips”; The Idiot’s Guide provides “expert advice” and “terrific tips”; For Dummies provides “explanations in plain English” and “icons and other navigational aids.” The generic qualities of these guides are obvious, as they all utilize a system of marginalized icons and advice tips that is evident as soon as one flips though the pages. Capitalizing on the fast-food style consumerism of the U.S., these guides are represented as the fast and easy ways to improve the student’s writing skills as can be seen on the back cover of The Idiot’s Guide which offers “quick and easy ways” and “idiot proof steps” and the For Dummies which offers the “easiest and fastest methods.” Each of these humorous reference guides sells writing as a teachable genre merely by the fact that they are able to package the necessary skills, rules, and techniques that are said to make the writer succeed.
But who is the writer?
Though all of these guides describe themselves to be guides on similar types of writing—including essays and research papers—they are not in fact writing for the same type of writer; our hero takes on many forms in these texts.
The clues to who the writer is in Painless...