Squeeze the Sponge: A No-Yawn Guide to College Writing

Rhoda Janzen is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and a recent finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. A poet and American literature scholar, Janzen holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was awarded the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan where she teaches literature and writing. Janzen has received UCLA’s Luckman Award for Distinguished Teaching and a National Pew Charitable Trust Award for Innovation in Teaching.

Squeeze the Sponge: A No-Yawn Guide to College Writing uses Rhoda Janzen’s powerful, hilarious, and emotionally generous voice as an award-winning professor and bestselling author to offer undergraduate students an inspirational writing guide. This indispensable textbook is replete with hands-on activities, links to exemplary rhetorical and literary texts, and memorable tips to help students craft and refine their writing—in other words, “squeeze the sponge.” Janzen achieves something new: a textbook so lively and humorous that students will actually want to read it.

Rejecting the deficit model of instruction, Janzen meets students where they are to help them become better and more confident college writers through five unique textbook sections: “How to Write for College Assignments;” “How to Generate Good Stuff to Write About;” “How to Play the Grammar Game;” “Style Rescue;” and “An Ending with a Twist.”

Coming in 2018

  • ISBN:
  • ISBN:
  • 978-0-9910375-9-9 (Interactive, $55.00)
  • 978-0-9910375-8-2 (Print/Digital Bundle, $75.00)

Advance Reviews

“This is a genuinely unique and wonderful text. It combines the intensely readable personal touch of the how-to writing handbook with the no-nonsense nuts-and-bolts of the freshman composition textbook. I enjoyed reading it and suspect most students will as well, and was struck throughout by the author’s powerful, consistently engaging voice: This is a composition textbook that is actually fun to read!”
– Ira Allen, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media Studies at Northern Arizona University

“This text displays a remarkable voice and degree of engagement with the reader, built both from understandable anecdotes and the author’s own experiences. Its tone is decidedly non-textbook and this is to its great credit as a potential stand-out among prospective teachers of writing.”
– David Grant, Associate Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa

“The author makes herself known to the students. She has a strong voice and personality, writing from a first person P.O.V. rather than relying on a deceptive third-person impersonal ‘authority’ that distances readers. Best of all, the author works by building on what she knows students are already able to do.”
– Elizabeth Lowry, Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition, Arizona State University

Sample PDF Chapter

The sample chapter below is available as a static PDF document. The published book will be available on our interactive, web-based textbook platform, which will include the following features:
  • Auto-graded quizzes at the end of each chapter;
  • Collaborative discussion activities in real time;
  • Numerous links to relevant online sources;
  • Instructor PowerPoint presentations for each chapter.

Chapter Excerpts

“Rumors flew thick and fast about an especially intimidating professor. He read the dictionary for pleasure! He competed in ironman triathlons! He had built a laser in his backyard! All we knew for sure was that he rolled into every session just as the second hand swept the twelve, an entrance so terrifyingly prompt that we suspected him of hiding nearby with a stopwatch. Here was the signature rumpled cashmere jacket, the hip owlish glasses, the cross-body manbag that dared someone, anyone, to ask about the difference between nihilism and existentialism. He’d swirl his mug of matcha, steamwise, as if to demonstrate its fine bouquet.”
“After a lifetime of receiving the same five letter grades in school, sometimes we lose sight of the underlying message. Here is a handy translation:
  • A. ‘In a perfect world, I would read this essay proudly to the guy at my neighbor’s pontoon party.’
  • B. ‘This essay is like a pair of useful black pants.’
  • C. ‘Having read this essay, I am in the mood for a tuna sandwich.’
  • D. ‘Oh dear, this student must have had a late night.’
  • F. ‘As middle fingers go, this one offers an unambiguous declaration of other priorities.’”
“Thinking about audience doesn’t just prevent you from messing up. It actually helps you achieve a proactive goal foundational to all academic writing: the ability to write generously and respectfully about positions that oppose our own.”
“You cannot be an effective writer in any field unless you get the difference between topic and argument. Whether you're trying to write a good essay or a good lab report, you need to signal from the outset that you have given some thought to what the text/experiment means. It is not enough to document what occurs.”
“The problem with value language is that it is both slippery and extreme. Whenever I see it in a student essay, I think of those yellow caution signs that declare a recently mopped floor, a wee man flailing backward: Cuidado! Danger! Value language doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t craft an effective argument, but it comes with a high risk of destabilizing that argument.”
“Tip: Write a central argument for every reading assignment before you go to the class where you’ll be discussing it … The reason I’m urging you to do this important bit of intellectual work before class is that you need to get in the habit of knowing and trusting what you think. These two skills are mighty important to critical inquiry, every bit as important as the flexibility you will develop as you seek to grow your intellect by reading other authors.”
“The conclusion is not a cul-de-sac. Your argument is not supposed to come to a dead end where there is NO OUTLET … The conclusion is more like one of those turnouts for a scenic overlook. From its vantage point, it is totally possible to look back and see the road you’ve been traveling. But that’s not the main point of a scenic overlook. The main point of the scenic overlook is to alert readers to the lay of the land that lies beyond the overlook. It shows readers just how far they can see from here.”
“If you ever write a paragraph that takes the scenic route, diddling here, musing there, and it goes on for longer than a page, this is a sign to you. My counsel will be exactly the same if you have produced a confused nub of a paragraph, too short at three or four lines. These two structural gaffes are flip sides of the same coin, and they require the same fix. This is because they originate in the same problem. It’s not that the assignment is wobbly or the professor difficult. It’s only that you haven’t set the paragraph up right.”
“Never let a quote come drifting in all by itself, sad and alone, like a child lost at the mall. All quotes need to be tethered securely in or to your own sentences, even the little phrases and one-word wonders.”
“For many incoming freshman, using analogy in academic writing is a new strategy. And when you’re new at this skill, it’s easy to come up with a comparison that’s sort of meh . . . Your comparison should add something to the discussion, not just restate it. You need to be able to say exactly what the comparison is adding, and how. If you are unable to articulate this to yourself, know that you are asking your reader to do what you have not done yourself.”
“Writing from experience is the genre that most honors the process of radical, saltatory change. (Saltatory: very cool word. From the Latin saltare, meaning to hop or leap.) Thus the personal essay implies that in the telling of our own stories, we learn things about ourselves that will jump us to a new place in consciousness.”
“So if you want to sidestep the beige badge of mediocrity, here is the one thesis you must avoid when writing an essay that responds to two different texts:
__X__ is similar to __Y__, yet different.
This insipid thesis says to your reader, “I would much rather be playing Frisbee golf.”

Try this thesis instead.
__X__ and __Y__ share significant ideological similarities/differences, but, taken together, they suggest __Z__.”
“If you haven’t built trust on purpose, your reader will not trust you. In writing, just as in life, trust does not happen automatically. It has to be earned. An author’s credibility is structural, a matter of craft. It’s not so much what you believe in your heart. It’s what you do on the page.”
“Reading a text is not like reading a menu: you can’t just pick and choose. If a detail appears, you have to assume that it’s important, especially if it occurs as part of a larger pattern.”
“It’s not enough to locate a series of dots. You actually have to connect them. Let’s say you are reading a personal narrative essay on a childhood incident that an author remembered, and in this text the author refers to how things smell four times. Any decent college reader will notice the plurality of olfactory images. But a good reader analyzes what function they serve. What is the author trying to say about fragrance, odor, memory?”
“Reading nonfiction and fiction are flip sides of the same coin. The only difference is that in the former, context hovers around the writing, as ideas about 19th-century séances hover around our experience of the Haunted Mansion; in the latter, context appears inside the text, like the ghost who shows up in our car at the end of the ride. Whether inside or outside, context is important.”
“Think of the author as a beloved on a deathbed, getting ready to wrap it up with something profound. The end approaches, the text is short, here comes the final takeaway! You, the reader, must lean in and pay attention at this critical moment. The author has not given up or gotten bored. She has not run out of things to say. She is working up to the piqure, the punchline, if you will. Where she stops, she stops on purpose.”
“Remember that chunks with subordinating conjunctions get mistaken for sentences because they do contain both a subject and a complete action. Nonetheless this chunk is not a full-fledged sentence. It may be helpful to think of these chunks (adverb clauses) as wee alien monsters incubating in the abdominal cavity of a human host. They need to be inside a sentence. Aliens need us, see.”

“I should probably mention that after college you will never hear or say the term subordinating conjunction again, unless you are the sort of person who likes to read Schopenhauer before bed. In fact if at a social event you exclaim with enthusiasm, ‘Hey, what about those subordinating conjunctions!,’ don’t be surprised if your friend spots an old acquaintance across the room.”
“Thus the orator’s dilemma: Which was more important, an outgoing grammar rule, or global gender inclusivity? The orator chose the latter. She decided to go with they. The orator totally knew that using they to talk about one person might cause confusion, but she decided the risk was worth it.”
“A pet owner, however, personifies her animal with the pronoun appropriate for people. Her pet is not some freeloading, untidy raccoon that may or may not have rabies. Her pet is a Great Dane who likes to slow-dance with her. It is easy to see yourself in intimate relationship with a Great Dane who weighs a splendid 169 lbs and looks a little like Humphrey Bogart, especially when lipping a fake cigar.”
“Proofing a document out loud is also the only way to prevent pesky misplaced modifiers such as
Applauding wildly, the tenor bowed to the audience.
When you’re writing such a sentence, in your head it is perfectly clear that the audience is encoring the tenor. But something gets lost in translation between brain and keyboard. This sentence presents us with the ludicrous image of an opera singer who is wildly and enthusiastically applauding himself. I, for one, would really enjoy a self-affirming opera star!”
“Developing style in your writing is a much bigger deal than including the odd snippet from your experience, or the occasional juxtaposition of your own convictions against those of others. Training your style is actually a matter of the structural choices that sculpt your writing. Without strong style, you will still have a vehicle for your ideas. But without a distinct style, nobody will remember them.”
“Many students overuse the same ho-hum declarative rhythm because they have never realized that it is their responsibility to make variety happen. Variety does not happen all by itself. I know a woman who claims that her husband fixed a tuna sandwich for lunch every day... for twenty-six years. You do not want to turn your college essays into twenty-six years of tuna sandwiches. The time has come to try a muffaletta. Varying the sentence lengths doesn’t cause the development of personal voice, but it frees up the prose so that the development can happen.”
“When deployed with technical competence, humor is interesting. This is because it takes us somewhere. It pushes beyond that song stuck on repeat. If you are competent at the craft, humor propels the reader to arrive at insight. And it's no coincidence that insight predicates the ability to take action. Who would bother to inconvenience themselves with action if they didn't believe in the idea behind it? You, the author, are not seeing humor in a difficult situation. You're finding it.”
“I began this book with a story of a college teacher whose approach wasn’t very helpful. Remember the connoisseur of matcha who made the class really feel the hugeness of every little thing we didn’t know? The matcha professor was indisputably competent and knowledgeable, and I ended up learning what I was there to learn. But I didn’t enjoy the experience, and, if you want to know the truth, I emerged from that class with less confidence than I had had going in. Thus it seems fitting to end this book with a very different story, about a professor and a classroom experience that provided a takeaway I wasn’t expecting.”