Wordsmithing is both an art and a craft. Copy that engages audiences is built on the nuts ‘n’ bolts basics of good writing: correct grammar, spelling and punctuation; proper word usage; and consistent style. In our digital age of LOL text-speak and 140-character microblogging, precise writing still matters. Most seasoned writers have at least a few dog-eared reference books on their shelves that they crack for answers to all sorts of editorial questions.
Here are five great resources for writers worth buying, bookmarking or downloading.
The Associated Press Stylebook
Wordsmithie clients sometimes provide their own in-house editorial style guidelines. If those don’t exist, we consult The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. In print for more than 60 years (last updated in 2015), AP covers the nitty-gritty of what a writer needs to know to write clear, concise copy. It offers guidelines for capitalization, abbreviations, spellings, numerals and word usage, as well as for writing about particular genres such as sports, food, fashion and business. There’s even a whole chapter on how to source material found on social media. (Writer beware: just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.)
The Chicago Manual of Style
The go-to reference for academic and research publishers, The Chicago Manual of Style first graced writers’ desks in 1906. Now in its 16th edition, Chicago is the reigning heavyweight in all matters of grammar, punctuation, spelling and usage; it’s considered the copyeditor’s bible. If you’re curious about proper placement of punctuation within quotes (within quotes), how to use commas and semicolons or when to hyphenate compound adjectives—this venerable tome is for you. If Chicago can’t answer it, you probably don’t need to ask it.
Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips™
Who says grammar can’t be fun? Mignon Fogarty built a devoted following with her upbeat Grammar Girl Podcast, books, appearances on The Today Show and Oprah and by giving a TED Talk on language. Fogarty demystifies those head-scratching editorial questions that keep writers up at night (without making us feel stupid): When should I use bad vs. badly? Can I use “they” as a singular pronoun? Is it OK to split infinitives? (Good news: Yes!)
The American Heritage Dictionary
I prefer The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language over others because of its word usage notes. From the website: “The Usage Notes following many entries present important information and guidance on matters of grammar, diction, pronunciation, and registers and nuances of usage.” It doesn’t just define the word but shows its correct usage in a sentence. For example, it offers detailed notes on commonly confused words (such as affect vs. effect and assure vs. ensure vs. insure) and pesky plurals (such as data). Don’t just spell it right, use it right.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations
Writers sometimes like to spice up their copy with an eloquent, humorous or thought-provoking quotation by a famous person. Bartlett’s contains a massive repository of famous quotes from celebrities and sages across the ages, from Shakespeare to Springsteen. Like Chicago, this book is the undefeated heavyweight champ of its genre (literally: the 18th edition hardcover weighs in at 1,500 pages). Bartlett’s is searchable alphabetically and chronologically by author, as well as by subject and keyword in its “famous extensive index.” Fortunately, for anyone adverse to lifting heavy objects, Bartlett’s now comes in app and e-reader formats.
To close, I’d like to quote Snoopy from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, who sat atop his doghouse and tapped out on his manual typewriter, “Good writing takes enormous concentration.” To that I would add “and a few good reference books.”