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Write to reach your true audience

In writing, your voice is the way you “speak” to your audience, and it includes your word choices, your “tone” of voice, and what you intentionally or unintentionally reveal about yourself. Style is the way you use words to express yourself in writing. A second meaning of style is the system of conventions you adopt to format your writing for your subject area, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Council of Biology Editors (CBE), or The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style). Voice and style are important matters in textbook publishing. By themselves, your voice and writing style can make or break your book. Making decisions about voice and style involves reflecting on your mission, understanding your audience, choosing how you will represent yourself and your subject, and monitoring your tone.

Reflect On Your Mission

A good way to ascertain whether you are ready to write your textbook is to draft a working preface, which may change as your manuscript evolves. The preface sets out your mission—the reason you wrote it, other than the potential status, security, and income—and what you hope it will accomplish. Textbook authors may have any of the following goals or a combination. These are goals you will have expressed in your product proposal.

  • Correct misconceptions, myths, and stereotypes.
  • Expose students to the subject.
  • Assist instructors teaching the course.
  • Enable mastery of the subject.
  • Fill a need for more, less, or different content coverage.
  • Share a love of the subject and attract students to the field.
  • Get students to think differently about the subject.
  • Introduce new facts, ideas, models, or paradigms.
  • Show students how to use or apply subject knowledge and skills.
  • Share professional knowledge, skills, and experiences.

However, authors with the following mission or goals (intentional or latent) enter a shady or risky area, especially if they are writing an introductory text:

  • Advance an argument.
  • Expose falsehoods or misconduct.
  • Discredit a person, theory, or point of view.
  • Promote a particular paradigm or approach to the subject.
  • Indoctrinate students.
  • Discourage induction into the field.
  • Change the way the course is taught.

Instructors teach to their venerable, perhaps decades-old, oft-revised course syllabi and lecture notes. They really do not want to overhaul the way they teach the course. Changing a course takes additional thought, time, and effort. While most instructors strive to improve their courses through minor changes, few will be up for massive changes or changes based on unknown or unwelcome paradigm shifts.

Intellectual crusades also are a disservice to learners. Your mission should be grounded in the fact that textbooks are, by nature, expository. They present facts, theories, research, analyses, comparisons, contrasts, examples, nonexamples, applications, extensions, and interpretations in a balanced, objective way. Above all, textbooks should teach. Personal syntheses (everything you have learned so far), critical analyses of your field, and crusades (reforming the field or changing the way your subject is taught) unfortunately tend to be too idiosyncratic and difficult (hence inappropriate) for introductory undergraduate textbooks. Publishers invariably want a “mainstream text,” and in this sense, the concept of “mainstream” extends to the content as well as to the course or market.

Take a moment, then, to reflect on your mission. Frame a mission statement to keep before you as you draft. What will students come away with when they have finished reading your textbook? What of importance will they take with them (other than a grade) when they have finished the course? Who is your real reader anyway?

Identify Your Real Reader

What students will read your textbook? Identifying and successfully addressing your readership is a complex enterprise. Consider, for example, the role of user personas in the development and design of digital products. User personas are hypothetical characters built from marketing data—avatars, if you will—who represent the buyers and users of a product. Multiple user personas permit dynamic product development that is interactive, recursive, and open-ended. Note, however, that the buyers and users of your textbook are not the same personas. The buyers are the course instructors, the gatekeepers, and your product must satisfy them first before addressing the diversity of student users taking the course.

After identifying their buyers, many authors forget their true user audience as they draft. Shifts occur in which the author begins to write not for the student learner but for his or her peers: the faculty member, adoption committee, professional review board, journal editorial committee, colleague, doctoral student, reviewer, or critic. Authors writing for experts, on the other hand, by some reverse compulsion, tend gradually to treat the expert reader as a neophyte. Keeping the real learner firmly in mind requires mindfulness and self-discipline.

Who, then, is your true audience? In the case of introductory college textbooks in the liberal arts and sciences, the real user may be eighteen or nineteen years old, away from home for the first time, heavily invested in peer culture, and not yet transformed from late adolescence into adulthood. On the other hand, the real user may be a nontraditional student—for example, an older single parent without a standard high school diploma working full time (Stansbury 2015). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average age of students enrolled in community colleges in 2014 was 29 (NCES 2015). In either case, your reader may not have declared a major, may be uncertain about career paths, and probably is not, for now, planning to enter your field or follow in your footsteps. Your textbook may be the student’s first substantive exposure to your specialty. The reader also may be naive if he or she has few assumptions about your subject and little direct experience with it, harbors misconceptions, does not recognize the big names you cite, and is not aware of the in-group issues, controversies, histories, personalities, debates, agendas, and nuances that rivet the attention of professionals in your field.

The student brings few or many skills to the classroom, depending on family background, life experience, and preparation at the secondary level or in the labor force. Students may be in a two-year community college; a technical school; a small, private, four-year college; an adult education night school; an online for-profit school; or a large, state university—wherever your course is taught. Regardless of preparation, undergraduate readers are still developing reading comprehension skills and critical thinking skills. Most are still learning to distinguish fact from opinion and to evaluate evidence. Most still tend to treat constructs as real and are concrete thinkers who need concrete examples to grasp abstractions. Most important, few of these students have learned to question what they read.

Thus, on unfamiliar ground, undergraduate readers, however intelligent or street smart, often struggle to construct meaning from text. The majority will not recognize irony, for instance, at least not your idea of it. Nor will they distinguish well among irony, sarcasm, cynicism, humor, sexual innuendo, and opinion in a textbook on French composition, neurophysiology, political science, or electrical engineering. Irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and sexual innuendo especially have no place in textbook writing. Authors of textbooks at any educational level need to provide straightforward, unnuanced, expository prose.

Avoid Undeclared Bias

Your introductory audience also is diverse. Nationally, at least half your readership will be members of racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, immigrant, and sexual minority groups, with as many as half speaking English as a second language. According to the NCES, in 2011 and 2012, as many as 11 percent were students with disabilities (NCES 2013). In 2007, 24 percent of people age 65 and older were enrolled in college courses (American Council on Education 2007). More than half of your readers will come from single-parent, blended, and low-income, inner city and rural families. And more than half will be women (NCES 2015). In the past, textbook authors were a demographic described stereotypically as white males in middle age from comparatively affluent suburban backgrounds. Whatever their demographics, authors typically tend to forget those of their readers, which is why editors remain constantly vigilant about writing that can be construed as racist, classist, culture biased, or gender biased. This vigilance has traditionally been known as concern with political correctness.

“Political Correctness”

Political correctness is not about politics, nor is it necessarily about making books politically neutral. In textbook publishing, the term politically correct, which originally referred to towing the party line in Communist regimes, is a borrowed euphemism for language that does not off end readers who are members of minority groups of any kind, to be immigrants or nonnative speakers of English, to have disabilities, to be elderly, to come from economically disadvantaged environments, or to be female, gay, and so on. Condescension toward the young or inexperienced also is taboo. Some authors disparage publishers’ concerns about political correctness. However, it makes a good deal of practical sense not to off end your intended reader if you can avoid it. An off ended reader will stop reading—will not learn from you. In addition, your publisher will be handicapped in attempting to sell your book successfully.

Guidelines for making your textbook culture and gender fair are available, and there are many resources for writers, including a number of comical or searing parodies. For gender-fair writing, the classic source is by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, updated in 2001 by Kate Mosse (Miller & Swift 2001). Be aware, however, that rules and labels, as well as the identification of groups undergoing marginalization, are constantly changing in the world of political correctness. Advocacy groups publish their own preferences, journalists follow the international standards of their profession, and each college textbook publishing house has its own rules about language to use for minority groups. Your acquisitions (AE) or development editor (DE) should provide information about house style preferences in the naming of social aggregates, attributes, and groups.

Unfortunately, political correctness sometimes can extend to matters involving reality and the truth, and in these matters, concerns about censorship can be quite valid. Historically relevant usages, such as Negro and Indian, may disappear altogether from history textbooks, for example, just as for a time Vietnam was a “police action” and not a “war.” Publishers only recently gave up insisting on referring to “the United States” versus “America” on grounds of actual political geography; and after a decade of ISIS atrocities and events such as the Boston Marathon bombing, sympathetic or self-critical responses to international and domestic terrorism are, for better or worse, not especially welcome. Thus, some degree of censorship, some would say sanitization, is inevitable. Textbooks are written in particular times within particular political contexts.

A survey of schoolbooks through time reveals racist moralizing in McGuffey’s Readers of the nineteenth century and political chauvinism in early twentieth-century editions of Muzzy’s. There are countless other examples; they are global—and sometimes extreme. Maps in Saudi geography textbooks do not show Israel, for instance. Additionally, according to research reported in The Washington Post (Shea 2006), Saudi schoolbooks explicitly teach hatred of Christians and Jews. The most comprehensive study of Saudi textbooks commissioned by the U.S. government, completed at the end of 2012, reported only superficial reforms (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012).

Textbooks enter an already made world that changes, and publishing as a social institution or social contract is no less influenced by political and economic factors than other social institutions, such as the family, education, or medicine. As a textbook author of your time and place, it is up to you, your editors, and your publisher to decide where to draw the line regarding political correctness.

Pitfalls of Unwarranted Assumptions

As simple and sensible as ideas about politically correct speech may be, authors frequently violate the guidelines, usually unintentionally. Instances of insensitivity are not always obvious. In the following sample textbook passages, put yourself in the place of any intended reader. How might you feel about the passages? How might you feel if the passages described you (or did not describe you)? How might you feel toward learning the subjects of these passages?

Example A: Suppose a person jumps from the top of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. The scientific law of gravity leaves him little choice: He will fall swiftly to the ground, most likely to his death. However, should he choose to equip himself with a parachute, he would foil the law of gravity by exploiting other laws of physics.

Example B: The essential characteristic of physical experience is the abstraction of the physical properties of objects encountered in the environment. For example, by setting a spinnaker, playing the oboe, or cultivating freesias, one comes to know that spinnakers are “billowy,” oboes are “reedy,” and freesias smell “sweet.”

Example C: Restricted language codes are associated with short, simple, and grammatically uncomplicated sentences, which are usually devoted to actions and things in specific contexts. Language codes have a strong correlation with parenting styles, with restricted language codes being more characteristic of authoritarian, power-centered families or neglecting, ignoring families. In such families questions are rarely asked. Children from this type of language environment are behind when they enter school and their deficit grows as they continue through school. Elaborated language codes, on the other hand, are most often found in middle and upper class, educated families. Parents who exhibit elaborated language codes tend to socialize their children. Speech is used for communication and discussion when children are asked to comply with parental wishes, not as an element of control.

In Example A, personhood involves being male, knowledge of a specific cultural landmark is assumed, and the scenario evokes an image of suicide. In Example B, as lovely as it sounds, the assumption that readers have the kind of background and social environment that would have enabled them to experience spinnakers, oboes, and freesias is unwarranted. Example C is even more classist and by extension racist. Lower and working-class families are authoritarian or neglecting; they do not have elaborated language and do not socialize their children! In addition, naive readers may not notice or understand the significance of the fact that passage C is undocumented. Source citations, in addition to their other functions, are important clues for readers’ reasoned judgments about what you are saying and what you are telling them to think.

The Place of Ideology

Unlike different theoretical perspectives in your academic discipline, political ideologies have no place in introductory textbooks unless they are themselves the subject of discourse or are presented in a balanced way. Contrary to critics’ complaints, this does not mean you must avoid taking a stand on issues, only that you must refrain from doing so secretly, claiming that yours is the only stand, or misrepresenting other stands.

If your liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, feminism, deism, positivism, existentialism, or other “ism” unavoidably informs (or contaminates) your content, it is your duty to declare it. Depending on the level of investment in your textbook, your publisher may prevail upon you to eliminate the need for a declaration of this kind, because it inevitably shrinks the market for your book and reduces sales. Even with only a particular single-focus theoretical perspective, you risk becoming the author of a niche book, more so if you are authoring an introductory undergraduate textbook.

Niche books may not earn enough to be revised. To sales representatives, the label “niche” is code for unprofi table, a kiss of death. Realistically, they won’t want to spend a lot of time trying to sell a niche book. Besides, how can readers taking their fi rst college-level course in your subject possibly be in a position to detect your stance on their own, to compare and contrast it with other stances, and to evaluate critically what you are asking them to believe? On both mercantile and moral grounds, therefore, authors must be mindful of inappropriate ideological biases in instructional materials.

In many ways, then, understanding your readership and avoiding undeclared bias are more complex than you may expect. “Respect your audience and meet their needs as learners” is the prime directive. If you find you have diffi culty remaining mindful of your readers and their needs, collect class pictures of students in any class in which your book might become the assigned text. Mount the pictures around your computer monitor and glance at them as you draft. See if you can develop a liking for those students and sympathy for their individual journeys to enlightenment. Write for them.

Write to Reading Level

Your vocabulary, sentence length, sentence construction, paragraph length, and level of conceptual abstraction determine the reading level of your book. Other commonly used terms for reading level are “cognitive level,” “comprehension level,” and “difficulty level.” In elementary and secondary textbooks, various mathematical formulae are applied to determine reading levels, which are critical for successful adoption by state- and district-run textbook adoption committees. In college publishing, however, tests of reading level usually are commissioned only when the publisher needs to prove that a book is too far
above or below reading level for the course for which it is intended. As a rule of thumb, introductory undergraduate textbooks should be written at a Grade 10 to 12 level. The reader is a high school graduate.

Reading level and difficulty level are not the same thing, though they may be related. The difficulty level of your textbook depends on your intellectual level and degree of rigor, the quality and integrity of your expository writing, your explanation of the language or the vocabulary you use, and your progression of completed thought. The language you choose for exposition should have the following characteristics:

  • Audience appropriate
  • Content appropriate
  • Level appropriate
  • Readably written
  • Comprehensible (meaningful)
  • Unbiased and inoffensive

Language that is not appropriate for any reason, not well defined, not well integrated into narrative context, and not supported by application or example automatically increases the difficulty level. The level of difficulty also depends on the following factors; the greater the number or salience of these factors, the greater the difficulty:

  • Level of abstraction
  • Amount of prerequisite knowledge or skill
  • Amount of new information
  • Lack of definition and illustration
  • Pace of instruction
  • Assumptions about reading comprehension
  • Expectation of reader prediction, application, or practice
  • Expectation of reader expertise or innovation

On a scale of one to ten—low to high—how would you rate the difficulty level of the following passage?

Earth’s axis is not perpendicular to the plane of the earth’s orbit but is tipped by 23 and a half degrees. The celestial coordinate system of ascension and declination is complicated somewhat by the fact that the earth’s axis wobbles as the earth spins. For the earth, gravity from the sun and moon cause the wobbling, which is called precession. The earth’s axis actually traces out a huge curve in the sky over a 26,000-year period, such that different stars occupy the position of the North Star at different times. The Vernal Equinox moves slowly westward along the ecliptic at about 50” per year. That is, it precesses.

We give it an 8 and with a little research would revise it as follows.

The axis on which Earth spins is not perpendicular to the plane of Earth’s orbit. It tips 23.5 degrees. The differential pull of the gravity of the sun and moon on the top and bottom of this tilt causes the axis to wobble, much as Earth’s gravity causes a spinning top to wobble. This wobbling is called precession. As a result of the precession of Earth’s axis, the celestial coordinates of stars change slightly over time. For example, Polaris is only temporarily the North Star. Four thousand years ago Thuban was the North Star, and 13,000 years from now, Vega will be.

Readability, on the other hand, relates more to the ease with which people of different ages or levels of educational attainment can read for comprehension.


A system commonly used for checking postsecondary reading level is the Fry Readability Formula, which is readily available for free online. Your word processing program probably also will calculate readability based on the statistics it tracks on the number of pages, words, characters, paragraphs, and lines in your chapter files. This function usually is an option in the spelling and grammar check utility. Note, however, that word processing programs use diff erent formulae, such as Dale-Chall, McLaughlin’s SMOG, the Flesch scale (general), or the Flesch-Kincaid (reading ease and grade level). The Coleman-Liau and the Bormuth scales both use only word length and sentence length to determine a grade level and so are not optimal for calculating readability in college textbooks. Check the readability of your text online using conversion charts based on a number of different scales.

Readability is just as important in digital products as in print products, if not more so. In websites and apps, type needs to be more than decipherable. Line length, text blocking, type size, column width, characters per line, contrast, color, space between lines, margins, wraps, heading length, alignments, and word breaks all affect readability in digital design. Most important, text for digital application needs to be brief, chunked or nuggeted as much as possible without loss of meaning, and frequently broken up with brief headlines and subheads. You can test the readability of your website online.

Textbooks notoriously are written two grades or more above grade level, especially in the sciences.

Principles of Writing for Comprehension

Some authors mistake simple straightforward language and sentences of modest length for accessible reading. They oversimplify language in the hopes that this will make their thought more comprehensible. However, writing for readability does not involve this kind of dumbing down. Enriched vocabulary and suitable complexity actually are desirable in a college textbook. These characteristics usually are not the problem in reading comprehension, especially when a glossary is provided.

Contrary to popular misconception, your college textbook publisher is not the source of dumbing down. The source is customer demand, especially demand for survey texts for science courses for nonmajors, leading to titles like “Anthropology for Dummies” and “Physics for Poets”. However, as Edward Morley writes in Inside Higher Education (2006), “It’s Time to End ‘Physics for Poets.’”

By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject. The first of these messages is sadly misguided. Science is more than just a collection of difficult facts to be learned. It’s a way of looking at the universe, a systematic approach to studying the world around us, and understanding how things work. As such, it’s as fundamental a part of human civilization as anything to be found in art or literature. The skills needed to do science are the same skills needed to excel in most other fields: careful observation, critical thinking, and an ability to support arguments with evidence.

What matters for reading comprehension is your progression of thought, connections between one thought and the next, and support of abstractions using concrete examples. Complex heuristic devices, unsupported generalizations, intellectual assumptions, undefined jargon, and leaps of logic (or of faith) leave readers in the dust. Consider the reading levels of the following excerpts from (unnamed) introductory college textbooks. Which is easier both to read and to comprehend, and why?

Example A: The table indicates a difference of 1.8 percentage points between the proportion of the Indian population living in urban places in 1972 and 1980, a span of eight years. Given this fact, it may be surprising to learn that there is great concern over urban growth in India, while there is not much concern in Spain where the urban population shows nearly 7 percentage points difference between 1972 and 1980. To understand the concern over the Indian rate, one has only to look at the actual numbers involved. In the eight years between 1972 and 1978, through migration and natural increase, India increased its total number of urbanites by over thirty-one and a half million people (note that in contrast to industrializing Europe, where urban growth was typically solely the product of migration, Third World cities were experiencing additional growth due to an excess of births over deaths within the urban population). The number of new urbanites in India in the span of those eight years was just five million less than the total population of Spain in 1978. [Paragraph continues for another seven sentences.]

Example B: Hypothermia is arbitrarily defined in humans as a condition in which the core temperature of the body falls below 35Åã C. It is a major cause of death in boating accidents, in mountaineering and polar expeditions, and in aged people living in cold climates in homes with no central heating. Table 12.2 lists the symptoms associated with various levels of hypothermia. It illustrates two important points. The first is that manifestations of cerebral dysfunction (i.e., apathy, amnesia, confusion, poor judgment, and hallucinations) are among the
earliest overt signs of hypothermia as the temperature of the body core drops. As a result, the idiosyncratic behavior of people under dangerously frigid conditions often increases the hazardousness of the situation. The second point is that humans can recover from core temperatures below 27 C, although they appear to be dead at such temperatures, with no detectable heart beat, respiration, or EEG (e.g., Niazi & Lewis, 1958). The only certain sign of death in hypothermia is failure to recover when warmed (Lloyd, 1986). [Paragraph ends.]

You no doubt chose Example B as the easier text to read and comprehend. It starts with a definition, provides a concrete context for learning about the subject, and systematically and without digression explains the behavioral significance of the data in the table, thus linking them to the subject. At the same time the passage retains an enriched vocabulary with many multisyllabic descriptive and technical words. The subject is equally complex as the passage on India’s urbanization, yet easier to comprehend.

Example A, in contrast, contains only one vaguely interesting word (urbanites), yet makes a hash of the reader’s effort to construct meaning. For example, the author assumes that the reader will understand what is meant by the conventions of the first sentence, despite the incorrect grammar, and will implicitly understand the significance of a span of eight years (i.e., the reader will realize that this is a significantly long or short time). For readability, the first sentences could have been better stated as follows:

The table indicates a 1.8 percentage increase in the proportion of the Indian population living in cities between 1972 and 1980. This percentage increase is remarkable for the comparatively (short) (long) span of eight years.

Example A goes on to say prematurely, “Given this fact,” before any fact has been made clear. The author then immediately introduces a comparison between India and Spain, suggesting we might be surprised. But we are baffled. Why Spain? In what way is Spain comparable to India? Why not Italy or Pakistan? Then we are asked to believe that urbanization in Spain is not so great a concern as urbanization in India, despite the fact that Spain’s rate of urbanization is so much greater than India’s.

At the very next sentence, most readers will stop struggling with the text and will study the table instead or will skip to the next paragraph, for in the next sentence the span of “eight” years changes from “1972–1980” to “1972–1978”! Readers who try to read on may start to feel stupid as they come to the long digression in parentheses, which obliquely suggests the point of the comparison between India and Spain, and the italicized words and, new, and total. These words have been singled out for emphasis, and the author assumes emphasis alone will cue readers as to signifi cance. Pondering that significance, an intelligent reader may wonder why the text is making such a big deal of a simple matter of scale. Why should we be surprised if, by analogy, a pond concentrates proportionally more fish through natural increase and migration than does an ocean? But what reader has the time and level of commitment to extract or construct meaning from page after page of abstruse text?

The proof is in the learning, and learning is what it is all about. If you think now about what you read in the examples, you will find that you remember more about hypothermia than about urbanization in India.

Write for Clarity

Part of the reason that Example A was difficult to read and comprehend is that it lacked clarity of expression. Clarity is clearness, the quality of being comprehensible; there is no doubt as to what is being said and what is meant by it. Writing for clarity in exposition, like writing for readability, also does not involve dumbing down. It involves crafting your writing style. As Strunk and White pointed out so famously so long ago, being clear, coherent, and concise (the three Cs) are the foundations of all good writing (Strunk & White 1959). Here are some avoidable writing problems that interfere with clarity.

If you find you tend to write above or beyond the reading comprehension level of your audience, as an alternative to using readability analyses, enlist the aid of one or more student readers. Give them copies of a chapter of your manuscript and ask them to write “Not Clear” alongside any passages that trip them up. Your analysis of those passages should help you identify and overcome patterns of exposition that reduce comprehension and learning rate in your readers.

Aim for Good Expository Writing

The best way to ensure clarity is to write well. When editors mark passages “Not Clear,” they are not being stupid but are basing their judgments both on the perceived needs of your target audience and on standards of good expository writing. All good writing for any audience at any educational level has the same basic qualities, including clarity, concision, unity, coherence, and emphasis. Wordiness is perhaps the greatest enemy of good writing.


Wordiness is the habitual practice of using more words than are necessary to convey information, an idea, or a feeling. Passive constructions and optional adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases cause the greatest off ense. In addition, wordiness comes from uncertainty and self-regard. That is, authors tend to use more words when they are unsure of the information they are attempting to convey, the points they are trying to make, or their efficacy in communicating on the page. Self-regarding authors, who like to hear themselves talk and extemporize on the page, also use more words. Whatever the reason, wordiness is to be scrupulously avoided. However careful or fascinating you believe you are in your writing, in reality, wordiness bores readers and interferes with their learning.

Consider the following unedited passage for a college textbook on criminal justice.

Example: Rehabilitation and restorative justice are more contemporary philosophies defining the purpose of criminal sanctions. Rehabilitation and restorative justice philosophies argue that criminal sanctions should provide for a “cure” of the criminality of the off ender. The rehabilitation model is often referred to as the medical model in that it views criminality as a “disease” to be “cured.” Rehabilitation of the off ender is considered to be impossible by some. For those who believe that it is possible to rehabilitate the off ender through rehabilitation and restorative justice models the most common approaches involve psychology, the biological/medical approach, self-esteem treatment, and programs aimed at developing ethical values and work skills.

Here is the same passage with thirty-six fewer words. Note that in tightening the paragraph, the development editor preserved, even improved, the author’s intention and meaning.

Improved Version: Rehabilitation and restoration are contemporary philosophies for obtaining justice through criminal sanctions. Rehabilitation calls for sanctions that “cure” the offender of criminality. Because it sees criminality as a disease to be cured, this philosophy is described as a medical model. Some doubt that off enders can be rehabilitated. Others, however, believe that eff ective rehabilitation is possible through psychological approaches, medical treatment, self-esteem counseling, and programs promoting ethical values and work skills.

Eliminating unnecessary words and phrases helps control manuscript length as well as improve clarity in exposition.

Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis

In addition to clarity and concision, all good expository writing exhibits unity, coherence, and emphasis. Unity is the quality of centrality and relevance, or belongingness. That is, all the paragraphs in a section relate to the purpose of that section, and all the sentences in a paragraph relate to the point set out in the paragraph’s topic sentence or thesis statement. In prose, irrelevancies, tangential remarks, digressions, sudden insights, flashbacks, cosmic syntheses, and brainstorming on the page can all compromise unity.

Coherence is the quality of sequentiality and integrity, or togetherness. Sentences and paragraphs progress in a logical or natural order, fl owing smoothly from one to the next while sticking together in meaning. The writing and the meanings it conveys have direction and thrust. Coherence is compromised most by lack of transitions, derailment of logic, stagnation of thought, and—statements that do not follow from what has just been said.

Emphasis in writing is the quality of focus, interest, and control. Words, ideas, and images are subtly weighted or ranked such that the most important word, idea, or image in each sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter stands out. Emphasis guides the reader in constructing meaning from text by distinguishing what is to be regarded as important. Emphasis is compromised when words, ideas, and images are all given equal importance or when the reader’s attention is focused inappropriately.

The above section of text, “Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis,” exhibits the qualities described in it. The three paragraphs all address the same implied purpose to define and illustrate these qualities. This is unity. The progression of thought within and between paragraphs facilitates sense-making—through the repetition of a pattern of exposition. This is coherence. And the section ends with the application in this paragraph, which reinforces the emphasis introduced in the first sentence of the section. Good writers and editors evaluate writing in terms of these qualities of unity, coherence, and emphasis.


The elements of style are word choices, word usages, sentence constructions, paragraph constructions, writing rules and conventions and formats, and your personal distinguishing communication values and expression of self. Read a list of the standard rules of style in English composition in the table of contents of the Strunk and White book or in Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014). Keep in mind, however, that many elements of style are arbitrary conventions and matters of taste. These vary nationally and among publishing houses, and they change over time. Items in a series may or may not require a comma before the last item, for instance; certain abbreviations may or may not be allowed, and so on. Rules that you learned in school—and disobeyed only at your peril—may no longer apply, so it serves to be fl exible on matters of style.

Ask your acquisitions or development editor about house style—the publisher’s style guidelines. You may find it helpful to consult the house style sheet as you draft. The copy editor, digital content editor (DCE), and production editor (PE) assigned to your manuscript will work to these guidelines as well. House styles are built from manuals of editorial style based on the publisher’s list needs, publishing experience, and idiosyncrasies of powerful editors. Preferences include simple matters, such as capitalization and punctuation, and larger decisions, such as using endnotes rather than footnotes. You can save yourself, any coauthors, your editors, and the people who will produce your book a great deal of anguish by choosing and consistently using one agreed-on style.

As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, editorial styles most commonly used in college textbooks are MLA, APA, CBE, Chicago, and several others. These styles differ mainly in their treatment of headings, source citations, notes, references, bibliographies, and technical notational or symbol systems used in the respective disciplines.

Developing your voice and style begins with reflecting on your mission, identifying your real readers, and making a commitment to writing for them in a way that is inoff ensive, unbiased, and appropriate in both reading and difficulty levels. In both the broad and the narrow sense, your writing style is a key ingredient in reaching your true audiences and accomplishing your true mission. Your writing should be good exposition. In your words and sentences you should avoid unwarranted assumptions, remain mindful of reading and difficulty levels, strive for optimum readability, eschew wordiness, and aspire to clarity, unity, coherence, and emphasis.


American Council on Education. October 2007. Framing New Terrain: Older Adults & Higher Education.

Miller, Casey, and Kate Swift. 2001. The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing: For Writers, Editors and Speakers. 3rd ed. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

Morley, Edward. April 13, 2006. It’s Time to End “Physics for Poets.” Inside Higher Ed.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2013. Digest of Education Statistics, 2013: Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities 2011–2012.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2015. Profile of Undergraduate Students, 2011–2012 (web tables).

Pinker, Stephen. 2014. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking.

Shea, Nina. May 21, 2006. This Is a Saudi Textbook (After the Intolerance Was Removed). The Washington Post.

Stansbury, Meris. September 28, 2015. New Data Gives Pause on Defining Today’s Typical Student. eCampus News.

Strunk, William Jr., & E. B. White. 1959. Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan.

U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report. 2012.

© Textbook & Academic Authors Association (TAA)

Chapter 6 Excerpt from Writing & Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide, by Mary Ellen Lepionka, Sean Wakely, and Stephen Gillen.