The University Record, March 22, 1993

Campbell’s Easy Writer shows ’ energetic minds moving through the often intense struggles of the writing process’

By Terry Gallagher
News and Information Services

The historic triumphs of Black women, a soldier’s memory of entering the coastal waters of Vietnam, a migrant farm worker’s dreams of studying social work, a young voter’s outrage over the Congressional banking scandal, the Teton Sioux’s Supreme Court battle for the Black Hills. What do they have in common?

They all are topics developed by U-M students and included in the recently published third edition of Easy Writer, a college English textbook by Dianna Campbell.

Whether the subject is rap music or heavy metal, baptisms or bar/bat mitzvahs, the glories or the headaches of playing Big Ten basketball, or the political implications of the terms “Asian American” and “Oriental,” U-M writers have strong opinions.

In Easy Writer, students’ drafts—from early and rough to refined and polished—show energetic minds moving through the often intense struggles of the writing process. Taking as their motto Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s observation that “The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend,” Campbell’s students typically work through stages of creating, shaping, sharing with classmates, conferencing with their teacher, revising, and sharing again.

Revising is the key to writing, says Campbell, a lecturer in the Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP). “To achieve excellence, students have to write, throw a lot of it out and write again.”

But audience feedback also is essential in helping students think through issues of purpose, clarity, evidence and voice in their writing. In Campbell’s classes, students regularly read aloud and invite critiques of their works in progress, always with an eye toward the success of the next draft.

“As students reveal themselves in their work,” Campbell explains, “they become a community of writers striving to sharpen their narrative and descriptive powers and use them to enliven the expository and argumentative writing typically demanded in their undergraduate coursework.”

For example, one set of essays in the text includes a narrative and descriptive piece about the drug-related deterioration of a student’s neighborhood in New York City’s Washington Heights, and a more traditional academic essay on the same topic. In the second essay, the writer was better able to exploit some of the power and passion present in the stories and pictures he had conjured for himself earlier.

The first section of Easy Writer focuses on student writing. The second offers students a chance to work with the syntax and conventions of edited English.

By editing in both short and long pieces on everything from Madonna’s music videos to vaudeville jokes from the 1930s, students are able to strengthen technical writing skills that may have been neglected in high school. Students use a partial in-text answer key so that their work is done independently and does not eat up precious class time.

Campbell points out that many of the students who struggled with these issues four years ago now are receiving letters of acceptance from law and medical schools and graduate schools of education and social work.

Helen Fox, a lecturer for the English Composition Board and in the Residential College, says that Campbell’s work is remarkable in the way it draws readers into student writers’ lives and for the high interest value of its exercises. “Easy Writer,” Fox says, “is a textbook that reads like a novel.” Fox is completing a book analyzing cultural influences on student writing that will be published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Part of the proceeds from sales of Easy Writer, published by HarperCollins, will go toward honoring excellent writing by U-M students who are affiliated with CSP.