Publisher: Self-Published, 2015
Cover Design and Interior Illustrations: Hann Lindahl
Purchase Book: 2.99 eBook, 9.99 Paper
Note: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Catherine Prendergast has been teaching writing, and writing about teaching writing, for a while now. But she’s only grown in her irreverence as time has passed.
Can I Use I?: Because I Hate Hate Hate College Writing is a short book (130 pages, print), but it has a big goal: to demystify the freshman college writing course for incoming students.
It accomplishes this goal using a three-part technique. First, it breaks down college writing challenges into what I’m guessing are the most common student questions that Prendergast has received over the years. Each one of these questions gets a chapter. Second, the book pulls back the curtain on what writing professors are thinking, providing insights into the minds of the real people who are assigning college writing. Third, the book draws analogies with non-writing activities or events to help new writers understand what exactly is going on in the writing class and what they should be doing.
This is a magical combination. Answering the most common questions derived over decades of experience, providing professor insights, and connecting college writing to students’ experience outside of the classroom makes for effective and entertaining reading. Let me give you an example.
Late in the book, there is a chapter titled “How Do I Make My Paper Longer?” This is a common concern among freshman college writers. The chapter leads with its most important piece of advice: “You don’t need to make your paper longer. You just need to make your paper better.” But what does that mean? Prendergast explains by way of providing professor insight, a few paragraphs later. “[T]he page limit is probably the last thing the instructor considered when creating the assignment.” I can promise you that students will read that line and have a epiphanic experience.
Prendergast provides even more insight: “And thinking too much about quantity can lead you to try to game the system. Instructors know absolutely every hack there is for making a paper appear longer than it actually is”—and she proceeds to list the ways students have been trying to fool professors for years, and have failed. What she’s really saying: Don’t do these things. Don’t get yourself in trouble. Okay?
After providing all of this insight into the mind of the professor, Prendergast has made a convincing case. Paper length isn’t the point. It is beside the point. “The page limit gives you a rough estimate of what your instructor expects in terms of detail. But that’s all it gives you, and nothing more.” If your paper is coming up short, then its shortness has nothing to do with page length, and everything to do with the quality of your paper. So how do you make your paper better?
Flip back to the chapter on sources, to the one on good research questions, to the one on what makes a strong thesis statement—it’s all in the book. Like Prendergast said at the beginning of the chapter: make your paper better, not longer.
I taught college writing for 11 years, and I’ve even written a writing textbook or four. I can promise you there is nothing like Can I Use I? on the market. My only concern is that Prendergast will have trouble getting the book into students’ hands. Given the low price of the ebook (only $2.99), many schools would be doing themselves a favor buying it for their students as a welcome gift. It would certain save their writing professors a lot of work.