Helping writers develop good habits

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Hello, dear Colleagues: I send all good wishes to you and your students for the new academic year. I’m often asked these two questions at the start of the semester: What are the best ways to introduce a Hacker/Sommers handbook? and What activities might help students develop the habit of using a handbook?

We know that most students enter a writing classes uncertain about what a handbook is and how and why it will help them succeed as college writers. Yet we also know that the more students rely on their handbook, the more effective they will become as writers, especially when they’re writing their papers at 2 a.m. and need a trusted source to answer their questions about using sources and meeting the expectations of college writing.

On the first day of class I tell my students this: Everything you need to become a successful college writer in any course is in your handbook. Buy it, become friends with it. I’ve learned, though, that this statement is a well-intentioned abstraction unless I require students to bring their handbook to each class and give them specific reasons to open it—questions to answer or problems to solve—and show them how the book is designed for them. I want students to start asking questions about their writing and to learn how to find the answers in their handbook. One of my oft repeated queries in class is—Where in your handbook will you find the answer to that question?

I designed the following activities to introduce A Writer's Reference and activities to introduce Rules for Writers to help students become more confident using their handbook. These activities—scavenger hunts, open-book quizzes, and more—promote collaboration among students as they learn to navigate their handbook. Enjoy using these activities with your students. Let me know how it goes.

With all good wishes,
Nancy Sommers

About the Author
Nancy Sommers, who has taught composition and directed writing programs for more than thirty years, now teaches in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. A two-time Braddock Award winner, Sommers is well known for her research and publications on student writing. Her articles “Revision Strategies of Student and Experienced Writers” and “Responding to Student Writing” are two of the most widely read and anthologized articles in the field of composition. She has also created three films—Shaped by Writing, Across the Drafts, and Beyond the Red Ink—to bring the voices of student writers into a larger discussion about writing instruction. Nancy Sommers is currently the coauthor of Diana Hacker’s best-selling handbooks: The Bedford Handbook, A Writer’s Reference, Rules for Writers, A Pocket Style Manual, and Writer’s Help (see Her newest instructor resource, Responding to Student Writers, offers a model for thinking about response as a dialogue between students and teachers.