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Review of  The 'Backwards' Research Guide for Writers

Reviewer: Melanie Rockenhaus
Book Title: The 'Backwards' Research Guide for Writers
Book Author: Sonya Huber
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.2379

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AUTHOR: Sonya Huber
TITLE: The “Backwards” Research Guide for Writers
SUBTITLE: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration
SERIES TITLE: Frameworks for Writing
PUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing Ltd
YEAR: 2011

Melanie Rockenhaus, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, IT

A textbook for “first-year college students, aspiring journalists, and other
would-be writers” (p. xv), this book aims to convince writers of all types that
their own lives, interests and experiences are excellent first sources for
research. The author, an experienced writer and writing instructor, seeks to
convey her enthusiasm for and pleasure in both research and writing, and offers
a wide range of techniques, methods, ideas and materials to other instructors
who wish to do the same.

After an introductory chapter, the book is divided into four sections. The first
three are based on what the author calls the “framework of self-observation”
(p.7): relax, reflect, research. The fourth section draws these three moments of
the research process together to focus on revision and the necessarily circular
nature of research and writing. The introduction and four main sections are
briefly discussed in the following paragraphs.

“Introduction for Instructors”: This initial chapter provides both a description
of what the author is attempting in the book as well as a vade mecum for using
the book in a classroom. Placing herself firmly in the tradition of reflective
education, the book begins with an account of her own experiences in writing or
trying to write. She concludes that what she has learned is to use a process
approach to research and writing which is likewise contemplative, a term used
here to mean self-aware, self-monitoring, not self-centered but rather focused
on what Huber refers to as the “contemplative technologies of mind” (p. 6). Like
all technology, she claims, the tools of the mind are empirical and their use
can be learned. Training aspirant writers to identify and use these technologies
is her goal in this book, and why she considers her approach novel, or
“backwards”. She concludes the Introduction by offering suggestions on how best
to use the book in a classroom and how to pick, choose and organize the material
for particular needs and situations.

“Section I. Research: An Inside Job”: This section, composed of four chapters,
places the aspiring writer at the center of the writing enterprise. It suggests
concrete steps for focusing on writing, including keeping a research notebook,
getting to know yourself and your reactions, concentrating on what you know
already and using questions to fuel further research. It also introduces two of
the strongpoints of the book, namely Experiments and Conversations, the latter
of which are interviews with experienced writers. Both of these elements are
commented upon in the Evaluation section below. The key word throughout this
first section is “relax”, intended here to mean willing suspending of judgments
and reactions.

“Section II. The Inside Meets the Outside: Paying Attention as Research”: This
section introduces the idea of carefully observing the world as a form of
research. By “Learning to See” (Chapter 5), the student can also begin
“Responding to Reality” (Chapter 6) and then use his or her own interests --
Huber uses the term “obsessions” -- to usefully research areas where there will
be enough sustained interest to keep the writer going through the long, often
isolated process of researching and writing a book. The key word throughout this
section is “reflect”, mirroring the unavoidably recursive nature of research and

“Section III. Big Bang: Form and Structured Chaos in Research”: Here the author
moves the aspirant writer closer to the final product by focusing on
organization. She does this by offering practical suggestions for organizing
one’s research, such as keeping a notebook for each project, or organizing
brainstorming notes, charts and other research products in various ways. She
also recommends random reading or Internet surfing as an occasionally useful
research method and discusses at length the art of interviewing, especially that
of listening and careful questioning. Not surprisingly, the keyword throughout
this section is “research”.

“Section IV. Open Minds Invite Surprises”: In the five chapters which compose
this section, the author considers what happens to many writers as their
research progresses. Learning a great deal about a single subject can lead to
surprises for the researcher, who should remain flexible enough to revise the
initial topic, reutilizing mental techniques acquired to relax and reflect on
the research project. Other possible problems she discusses include how to
handle the various impediments researchers inevitably find in their paths, such
as lack of reliable sources and of time, conflicting sources and more, and how
to know when to stop researching and begin writing. The final two chapters focus
on getting the work down on paper, handling and citing resources properly,
revising -- and re-revising. In fact, although there is no keyword for this
section, the author clearly considers revision an essential part of reflective
research and writing and discusses it at length.

The book closes with Appendices listing the various Experiments, a Recommended
Reading list and two pages on using MLA style, a list of References and two
indices, organized by Subject and by Author.

This is a practical, hands-on writing textbook which could be conveniently used
in a number of classroom and workshop settings with beginner researchers and
writers, as well as independently. Huber’s process-contemplative approach,
supported as it is by the many Experiments which lead the student to develop
their own “technology of the mind”, introduces would-be writers to the work they
have before them while enfranchising them to carry it out. This is done without
shying away from difficult questions , on the contrary: each Chapter contains a
short segment titled “The Gray Matter” which raises ethical questions or
discusses issues of principle, always followed by “Questions for Thought or
Discussion” which can be neatly used both as in-class or take-home materials to
gauge the maturation of the student’s reflective learning.

The book contains six interviews, or “Conversations” with researchers or writers
who offer valuable tips about how they find topics, research them, do or do not
organize their materials, force themselves to write, and more. While they make
very entertaining reading, these Conversations point to one of the possible
objections instructors working in academic programs may raise to the book:
although Huber goes to some pains to show the necessity of integrating our life
into our research, and in this she is convincing, most of the support apparatus
of the book -- the Experiments, the Conversations -- is not academic in nature.
If the book is used in an academic class as opposed to a creative writing
environment, it will be up to the individual instructor to provide the academic
input students will ultimately need.

For an introductory linguistics course, several features of the handbook would
be of some interest. First of all, hands-on research methods and techniques such
as immersion research, field research, interviewing and note-taking, are of
importance to early researchers in several areas of linguistics. Huber dwells at
some length on these procedures, providing useful suggestions and exercises to
develop the skills of early researchers. Secondly, the interviews with the two
authors who have studied and reported on groups of people would certainly be
inviting to anthropological linguists, even if neither of these authors dwells
on the language of their research participants. Lastly, the focus on ethical
questions in each chapter is a valuable practice tool for students embarking on
any career involving research, including linguistics.

These comments point to one of the handier qualities of this textbook: it can
easily be used as it is or in part, and its organization and structure make that
easy to do. As mentioned above, the author offers a series of considerations and
recommendations for how best to use the textbook in the “Introduction for
Instructors”. Moreover, considering her self-positioning as a reflective
educator, she also clearly states her bias for helping students learn to
brainstorm and research at length rather than pushing them to produce a final
project. This is appealing to many university writing instructors, but it may
not be possible for those harried for time or required to evaluate a piece of
student-produced research. Although Huber acknowledges this, and offers
suggestions on how to appraise student planning and researching as well as their
research output, instructors with limited classroom hours available may want to
consider using this textbook as a support or self-study addition to their
regular syllabus.

The book’s greatest strength and perhaps its potentially greatest weakness are
the numerous short, long, in-class and take-home Experiments it includes.
Instructor and student alike are invited to explore their thought processes,
their creative strategies and approaches, their research methods and quirks
through a series of more than fifty exercises ranging from the simple to the
more complex. These can be revelatory, such as the “Interest Inventory”, where
the student writer asks two or three friends to complete a
personality/skills/preferences inventory about the writer him/herself, or very
simple, such as training students to finish their work early, put it aside and
pick it up again with a fresh mind a day or two later. However, many of the
Experiments are also somewhat personal, and an instructor may easily find that
students will not wish to share the very first word or thought they had nor
openly reflect on mistakes they may have made while attempting to listen to a

All things considered, Huber has produced an organized, thought-provoking and
practical guide book for would-be writers. Although the idea of using one’s life
as creative material is hardly new, her emphasis on self-knowledge and
contemplative resourcefulness, or “backwardness”, is refreshing and timely. The
book is well-written and carefully edited and invites both cover-to-cover
reading and intermittent dipping into. Instructors and students alike will find
something to appeal to their needs and tastes, and it would be a useful book to
have in the library of any writing program.

Melanie Rockenhaus is the English Language Expert at Scuola Normale Superiore, an honors university in Pisa, where she teaches mainly first-year university students. She also teaches composition for the University of Maryland in Europe. Her interests include phrasal (formulaic) language, writing, assessment and translation.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781845534417
Pages: 362
Prices: U.K. £ 75

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781845534424
Pages: 362
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99