Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Useful Resource Books
A reader asked me what editing reference books I have handy on my shelf. I was surprised to see just how many there were, and how
few I actually use. So I polled a few editor friends and some of my favorite authors to see if I could come up with some good recommendations.
authors said that they have no non-technical books on the shelf, that they have only a dictionary and a Chicago Manual, or that they
rely solely on me and my ilk and Word’s built-in tools. Editors had, for the most part, a list like mine; lots of books, but only
a few used regularly.
In truth, I use my Webster’s Dictionary, Bernstein’s The Careful Reader, and the Chicago Manual quite regularly.
I occasionally use Microsoft’s Computer Dictionary, but more often look up technical terms on the Internet. I also have need for a
really big Langenscheidt English-German Dictionary (it’s a big one, Mike P., not a travel version—it’s bigger than my Webster).
my list. I confess that many of these books got “promoted” to be near the computer when I started writing a blog about writing.
books are by my computer (in order of frequency of use):
- Langenscheidt English-German Dictionary. I spend a lot of time researching
medieval German music. Yes Don K., that includes Gregorian chant, although I prefer the St. Gall (German) to the Solesmes (French) tradition that
you might find more familiar.
- Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. I probably need to get a more recent version. I also use Dictionary.com
a lot, but I like Webster's for its etymology.
- Chicago Manual of Style, 13th ed. I need to get the new one. This is the most comprehensive
style guide I've found, and I like their conservative stance.
- The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein. He's got lots of quick explanations
for restrictive clauses and other usage topics. It's alphabetical, so you don't need to know what part of speech you're talking about,
- Scientific and Technical Writing and Editing, Susan H. Schwartz. Self-published, and probably not available anywhere but from
the author. This book has great bulk listing of relevant topics, like organization, jargon, structuring sentences, and visual aids.
It's too bad you have to take her class to get a copy, because it has loads of succinct descriptions and definitions, and lots of
- Microsoft's Computer Dictionary. Although not comprehensive and it seems to change radically from year to year, at
least I can look up what the heck my authors are talking about.
- Partridge's Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. My
version is kind of old, so it doesn't have a lot of the hip-hop words or the latest computer jargon, but it's got great history on
words like "honkoe" and "kerfuffle." I suppose I have it handy for entertainment purposes.
Here's my selection of less frequently used books (kept in the other room, in no particular order):
- Merriam-Webster's Manual for Writers
and Editors. A nice collection of grammatical rules, fairly easy to read.
- Pinckert's Practical Grammar, Robert C. Pinckert. The first
readable grammar book I ever met. Lots of great explanations for the easily bewildered. I have since found some other readable grammar
books, but I’ll always have a fondness for this one.
- The Elements of Grammar, Margaret Shertzer. Nice discussion of the parts of a
sentence, but by no means comprehensive.
- Foreign-language quickie dictionaries for French, Latin, Italian, German, and Spanish from
The New College publishers.
- The Synonym Finder, J.I. Rodale. I like this HEAPS better than Roget's Thesaurus, which can't even provide
synonyms for words like "ranch." Peh. Rodale is much more creative. I don't even have a Roget's anymore.
- On Writing Well, William
Zinsser. Nice discussion of things like audience and voice, but is rather too general for most technical writers.
- Style: Ten Lessons
in Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams. Nice discussions of precision and concision, managing long sentences, and so forth. The
basic message is that "less is more."
- Fowler's Modern English Usage. Sadly, this is both British English AND smacks of 1926, when
it was first published, but it's helpful in understanding the difference between American and British English.
- Oxford's Dictionary
of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner. This is helpful to people writing about writing, mostly. :-) It has lots of definitions
- The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and Libel Manual. I hardly ever use this. It's all about conserving space at
the expense of good grammar and punctuation, and is mainly meant for journalists who must condense and stick to formulas.
- Dos, Don'ts
& Maybes of English Usage, Theodore M. Bernstein. I use this less than Bernstein's The Careful Writer, but it has some similar
expositions in a nice alphabetical order.
- The Elements of Editing, Arthur Plotnik. I admit to reading this once for a class and never
referring to it again. It's kind of a procedural book, but it didn't represent what I have experienced in the workplace.
- The Elements
of Style, Strunk and White. I hate this book. It has plodding descriptions, out-dated ideas, and is, frankly, a dull read. Yes, it
has some nicely isolated discussions of how to include a title, but it's soooo wordy. It's one of those "do as I say, not as I do
books" that turned us all off in our English Comp classes.
- Copyediting, Karen Judd. Again, I only read it once. It's a decent enough
guide on how to be a copyeditor, though, but I've found clearer and more comprehensive discussions on grammar elsewhere.
- The Handbook
of Good English, Edward D. Johnson. Has some nice examples of tricky bits, like quotation marks inside or out, but doesn't really
offer anything not found elsewhere.
I have a wild assortment of "joke" books, like the Richard Lederer series (Anguished English, and
the Bride of Anguished English, etc.) and the history of English that were gifts, and a selection of books on writing fiction, more
on editing, and a few research books, like collections of 20th Century Culture, a guide to literature, a reader's encyclopedia, and
so forth. I also have some oddball dictionaries, like for crossword puzzles and rhyming. For the most part, I use the Internet (including
MSDN) and the research books to check facts, and don't really look at the others unless I'm strolling through and something catches
my eye (perhaps to avoid a difficult edit).
These are direct quotes from what some of my authors said in response to the “what’s
on your bookshelf” question:
- Bartleby to swipe quotations, Google to find everything else. No need to remember actual Web sites when
Google has it all indexed.
- Google is my closest friend when I'm writing because I'm focused on the research and am obsessive about
getting my facts right. For grammar and such, I pretty much totally rely on editors. I own Microsoft's Manual of Style and the Chicago
Manual of Style, but I rarely refer to them. On the Internet, besides Google, I like Dictionary.com, although lately I've been typingdefine: followed by whatever I want to look up in Google.
- To be honest, I don't have a single writing book on my desk. I have theChicago Manual of Style and the Microsoft Style Guide in the closet.
- I've read Strunk & White's Elements of Style almost religiously
every year for years. I have several books in your list, including Elements of Style, Elements of Grammar, Elements of Editing. I
have a single dictionary within reach, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, probably from my high school days. I have a variety of
grammar, style, technical writing, and related books—including the OED, which I use about three times a year—but few stand out as
Here’s the list from my editing friends:
- Cassell's English-German Dictionary, Microsoft's Computer Dictionary, Theodore M. Bernstein’sThe Careful Writer. I use American Heritage Dictionary, due to a combination of factors: high-quality definitions, useful and interesting
Usage Notes, and good book layout and typography. It's a dictionary that's credible, thorough, and pleasant to use. I also have Chicago Manual
of Style, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage.
- I use Encarta online (http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/features/Dictionary/DictionaryHome.aspx),
realizing that in lexicographic circles it does not have the highest reputation. My fallback is Dictionary.com. We have the luxury
of the OED online at work, and while that's not a very practical dictionary for everyday purposes, it comes in handy for etymological
questions (which rarely have much to do with actual work).
- I have books about writing by William Zinsser, Annie Dillard, and Anne Lamott
have several dictionaries, which I use a lot, and AP or Chicago, depending on the client. As for useful Web sites, I use acronymfinder
(http://www.acronymfinder.com) all the time.
- Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications,Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them, The
Writer's Harbrace Handbook (published by Harcourt, no author listed), Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.
obvious that editors spend more time and money on research books than do authors. I guess that’s not too surprising.