The Best Reference Works for Writers
Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage – the ultimate usage referee, so I do not embarrass myself by confusing “optimum” with “optimal,” “different from” with “different than.” It’s witty, too. That's where I learned that the hard, fast rule that would prevent us from replacing more than with over came from the illustrious poet and renowned editor William Cullen Bryant, who pulled the rule right out of his pantaloons (he preferred that word to pants). Just declared it so. No reason. No history. Just don't do it because I don't like it. But over works just fine. And it's half as long.
The Chicago Manual of Style – when may an author abbreviate a civil or a military title? Every publisher in New York turns to the 1,000-page Manual to answer such questions. Here's the answer to that one: If you have only the surname, spell out the title: General Washington; but if you have the full name, abbreviate the title: Gen. George Washington. Only the Manual can answer these arcane questions.
The Oxford English Dictionary – Why fool around? Get the biggest and the best. Available in hard copy in a 20-volume set for a mere $1,150; or a “compact” version (includes a magnifying glass) for only $600. The latter is so huge, it will add muscle mass to your frontal lobe and increase the size of your pectoralis major all at the same time. If you want to decorate your writing space, get the 20-volume set. If you like things neat and tidy, subscribe to the OED online for $295 a year, or $30 a month. Or check with your local library or university about using the OED through its subscription--for free.
Beyond those five, yes, keep handy: The Elements of Style (Strunk and White), On Writing Well (William Zinsser), and Plain English for Lawyers (Richard Wydick). Also read Joseph Williams’s classic, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, and keep The Handbook of Good English by Edward Johnson handy for grammar’s stickier issues. If you're looking for the greatest book ever on how to use words to make true events come alive, try the one that inspired me to give up practicing law and become a writer: The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe, 1973, an anthology of great magazine pieces and chapters from books written by the finest practitioners of go-out-and-talk-to-the-people-who-were-there-or-be-there-yourself-when-it's-happening-and-get-the-facts-all-the-facts-behind-the-curtain-on-the-rocket-in-the-prison-cell-down-the-street-at-the-march-by-the-moonshine-still-in-that-foxhole-that-farmhouse-that-squad-car-plane-tank-ship-courtroom-boardroom-locker-room-operating-room-and-use-those-facts-to-tell-us-a-compelling-story-with-carefully-crafted-scenes-and-real-dialogue-to-take-the-rest-of-us-to-places-we've-never-been-long-to-be-and-often-never-even-knew-existed-to-let-us-know-what-it-was-like-to-have-been-there; with Wolfe's long definition of "the new journalism" and an explanation by Wolfe at the beginning of each piece on why it is so important.
As always, I encourage you to buy your books at an independent bookstore.
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