Once upon a time, I was a ski bum in Sun Valley, carrying bags for the likes of Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand. Before that, I had never seen snow. My first night in town, if someone had snuck up on me in the Pioneer Saloon and slapped a pair of skis on my feet, I would have had to walk home in them, because I did not know how to pop a binding. A few weeks later, I was still figuring out how to untangle myself after I ate it and landed with my skis uphill. During one of these awkward moments, an upright friend posed an interesting question: How do you know if it’s you or your Kmart skis? I already knew the answer to that one, but let’s ponder the question’s deeper meaning: How do we know we are the best writers we can be, if we don’t have the best writing tools?
When you and I write as much as we do, we need the best reference books on writing, grammar, punctuation, definition, and usage. I recommend the following five because I’ve used them nearly every day for the past 40 years:
Roget’s Thesaurus of Words and Phrases – at gunpoint, the last book I would give up. Published in 1852; I am certain Mark Twain used it to find lightning among the lightning bugs. I have a classic, vintage version from 1941 ($2.95 in a used-book store). I have literally (I mean literally) worn off the book jacket, and the spine has ripped almost to the bottom.
Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms – another of my reference books with the cover ripped from the binding. If I find “fabrication” in Roget’s, I often need to distinguish it in Webster’s; do I really mean “fiction,” “figment,” or “fable?” I need to know the nuance.
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.
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 $850; or a “compact” version (includes a magnifying glass) for only $350.
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. And if you’re looking for the greatest book ever on how to use words to make true stories come alive, try the one that inspired me to give up the idea of practicing law and become a writer: The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe, 1973, an anthology of great magazine pieces and chapters from books as 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-cell-down-the-street-at-the-march-by-the-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. Back on the mountain, I traded in the Kmarts for the K2s, my skiing improved dramatically, and I lived and wrote happily ever after. Amazing what good equipment can do for you. Speaking of good equipment, next week I’ll tell you about the genesis of WordRake, maybe your new best friend. And you won’t have to open anything: Just push a button.