A WRITER'S REFERENCE is a beautifully reorganized, compact version of THE BEDFORD HANDBOOK. (See my review on amazon.)
I taught editing workshops for several years using The Harbrace Handbook as the basic reference. At the suggestion of a former colleague, I agreed to take a look at his favorite, The Bedford Handbook/A Writer's Reference.
The first thing I noticed was its publisher's claim that the Bedford/A Writer's Reference is the all-time best-selling college textbook. For years, I used to introduce the Harbrace to my classes by quoting its publisher's identical claim. (Sic gloria transit mundi.)
Perusing the Bedford/A Writer's Reference, I agree it's decidedly more user-friendly. For example, Harbrace's opening chapters on grammar introduce adjectival and adverbial clauses without adequate explanations, which discourages many students. Bedford/A Writer's Reference begins its grammar section with the traditional parts of speech; in contrast, Harbrace mentions "parts of speech" only in its Glossary of Terms at the very end of the book.
A WRITER'S REFERENCE with Extra Help for ESL Writers devotes almost one hundred pages of grammar issues and intensive exercises (with solutions) addressed to them. Most helpful.
Particularly impressive is Bedford's section on researching online, with its advice to watch out for dubious websites. For example, in researching hazards of using cell-phone while driving: "In particular, some sites were sponsored by the wireless communications industry, which has an obvious interest in preventing laws restricting use of its products. Even a site sponsored by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis seemed somewhat suspect, since the wireless industry funded the center's study concluding that the risk of using a cell phone while driving is low compared with other risks."
Bedford/A Writer's Reference invites readers to visit its open-access website comprising: electronic writing exercises; electronic grammar exercises; electronic research exercise; resources for writers and tutors; model papers; research online, and language debates. This feature makes Bedford a truly amazing tool for self-learning.
The pages on Language Debates, I hope, will be enhanced in future editions. Too few entries; for example fewer/less usage issue is not mentioned. Moreover, Bedford makes no mention of THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY OF ENGLISH USAGE, published in 1989, which comprises 2300 usage issues and 20,000 quotations from writers. On the fewer/less issue, the MW Usage book Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage presents a detailed history, with a cheery endorsement of "less" with count nouns; for example, "Ten items or less" sign on the express lanes at supermarkets is perfectly acceptable. (No doubt the editors of the Bedford are aware of MW Usage book; however, the books they cite are much more prescriptive.)
The Bedford/A Writer's Reference is the most user-friendly college handbook.