Writer Resources: Reference Books

It isn't uncommon for clients or writers new to the craft to ask me for writing resources. I did a four-book post in the past, but I think it is a good time to update the reference resource pool. This is a list of books that I have used or books that I'm interested in giving a try. I will be doing a post at a later date of books that have come to me on recommendation.

I am going to start with the books that I have personally used and think make an excellent resource for writers. Some books may include several editions: Older editions are cheaper and fit better budgets, but I also feel that I should have a link to the more expensive versions for those who want the up-to-date resources.

Something of importance: Even the older editions are still valid. The concepts and knowledge of English as a language isn't something that just magically changes over 10 or 20 years. The basic rules remain.

The execution of those rules may differ slightly, but the basic concepts still apply. The foundation of English you'll learn from these books will be of use to you no matter which edition you select.

As a general rule, I am linking to Amazon. Why? Super Saver Shipping and discounts, that's why. These books tend to be more expensive (Ranging anywhere from $15 to $50+) so I'm linking to where the books tend to be the cheapest.)

I'm also linking to B&N for similar reasons. That, and I don't think it's fair to exclude the Nook readers following my blog. That said, B&N does tend to be more expensive, especially for print copies.

A Breakdown of the Template:

  • Skill level: By skill, I really mean your knowledge level. How much do you know about grammar? Moderate-level writers know the basics, they know a good number of rules, and they know just enough to get themselves in trouble. A beginner is someone who couldn't tell you the difference between “You're” and “Your”. An advanced-level writer is someone who knows the rules intimately and just needs a refresher here and there.
  • Publisher: Who published the book? — I know, authors are not being listed in this format, unless they're a part of the title or it's important to know. If you want to know who wrote the book, click on one of the links.
  • Type: Is it a reference book? A genre-specific book? Memoir? General type of book is listed here.
  • Format: Print / Kindle / Nook — if it isn't listed, I either don't know if it is available or it isn't available in that format.
  • Edition: Year released or name of the edition.

Books that I have used and Recommend:

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style is a reference book that is designed to help professionals maintain a consistent approach to English publications, as per the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press Staff. This is one of the most common reference books used in press and printing.

In fiction writing, I find this reference to be a great source for understanding the nuances of English. This, however, is not a good resource if you do not have a honed grammar skills. This is why I have rated this book as a moderate to advanced book. In order to fully understand the rules and nuances of the English language, a solid understanding of grammar is required. However, if you know the basics and are looking for a way to further hone your skills, this is an excellent resource.

I have used the online version of this book. I have even paid for a subscription for it. It's well worth it. This is a book that is worth paying the price for a current copy of. But, as I said in the forward of this blog post, an older edition is just as useful as the newest one. That said, if you work as a member of the press or as a freelancer, you'll want a copy of the 16th edition.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage

I can't talk about the Chicago Manual of Style without bringing its New York counterpart out to play. I don't own this book. I have had a chance to look through it, once, for a brief period of time. Like the Chicago Manual of Style, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is a reference book dedicated to keeping your writing consistent. Grammar rules are tricky. There are rules and there are exceptions to rules.

This is just another way of clarifying those rules to make sure you get it right. This is not a beginner's book. It won't teach you the basics.

That said, you'll notice something interesting about the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and the Chicago Manual of Style. They have different takes on the same rule.

Use the version you like best. They're both, technically, right.

If you want to tease the grammar fiend in your life, find out if they prefer the Chicago style book or the New York Times one. Use the rules of the opposite book. You'll drive them right up a wall and onto the ceiling. (It's fun. I've tried it.)

Strunk & White's Elements of Style

It comes as a bit of a shock to me that the paperback version of The Elements of Style isn't easy to acquire. On account of that, I had to make due with the Nook and Kindle versions for this listing.

The Elements of Style is a classic reference book. Once again, it is meant for moderate to advanced writers who have a firm grasp of the English language. If you're looking on how to improve your writing style, this little book has a lot of good material. It can help you strengthen your writing. It will not teach you the basics. I used this book a great deal to teach myself I knew nothing about grammar.

How? I tried using it as a beginner. That was how I realized my grammar skills were poor at best and I really needed to improve them.

Honestly, I haven't looked back sense. I don't pick up this book often now, as I've figured out my own style. That said, it was an invaluable tool in helping me identify that I didn't know enough about the English language.

The version of the book I have linked is current as of 2011 and is the official version. There are cheaper (and free versions) of this book available. That said, the cheap ones are from 1911. That's a little out of date, even for someone who acknowledges the rules of grammar change at a turtle's pace. $2.99 (as of the time of this post) is a small price to pay for this reference book.

On Writing Well

This book changed my life. It was introduced to me as a college reference book. I wish the book had been so cheap when I had first bought it. My copy has seen better days. It was one of those books I carried around the house with me and used often and with much love.

Then a cat puked on it.

This book is funny. This book is honest. This book is written in such a way that raw beginners can learn important basic skills. This book is written in such a way that grammar lovers can learn something new. This book makes learning fun and enjoyable. The writing style is light and entertaining, so reading it is fun and easy. Most importantly, it teaches. It doesn't hold itself aloft, but instead engages.

This is one of my favorite books. I could sing its praises all day long, so I'll just leave you with that.

A Grammar Book for You and I … oops, me! All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life

Like On Writing WellA Grammar Book for You and I… oops, me! is a great reference book for people of all levels. It isn't pretentious. It takes itself about as seriously as the modern culture does for English. That is to say, not so seriously at all. Yet, the writing style is engaging, the information within it is good, and it teaches you things you need to know. It teaches you the most important rules, and it clarifies the exceptions to these rules in a way that is easy to remember.

It's a thick book, but it's a good one, and I really enjoyed reading it. I learned something, too.

That makes this a dangerous and great book, in my opinion. Definitely a good book for those wanting to hone their writing skills without having to swallow down something as dry as the Chicago Manual of Style or the New York Manual of Style and Usage.

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words

This is a great reference book. There are a lot of words that cause us problems on a day-to-day basis. Is it they're, there, or their? It's or Its? When do you use -ible versus -able? What about anyone, anytime, anywhere, anybody? This book breaks down the rules on specific words, explains why things are as they are, and tells you the correct way to do it.

Well worth the price tag. I use this book extensively during editing or whenever I'm not sure which way is the correct way.

Grammatically CORRECT

This is a fun book. It isn't your normal guide to grammar and language. You've likely noticed a trend by now: I like reference books that are fun, engaging, and useful.

Grammatically CORRECT lives up to this and more. It starts off with commonly misspelled words. It pokes fun at all of us by purposefully misspelling a word in the first chapter for the sake of education. The book gives you exercises and ways to learn what you're being taught.

For that, this is an excellent book, especially for beginners. This book is useful for all levels of writers, as it reinforces the fact that no one is perfect. This is definitely a great book to keep around. Mine is a hardbound copy, and it's seen better days. Fortunately, my cat didn't puke on this book, but it has had various liquids spilled on it while I was reading.

I really have to stop doing that. I go through more resource books that way…

I am not linking to the Kindle or Nook editions if they exist. Why? This book is best utilized as a print edition book. It's meant to be small, carried around, and used as an on-the-desk reference book. I'm stubborn like that. It's faster to just pick the book up than it is to try to hunt the specific page in your kindle or nook. I love my oxford pocket dictionary, and it is usually on my desk, in my bathroom, or next to my bed.

This book gets around. I prefer the pocket dictionary because it's easy to use, has the most common words, and helps me get the job done without fuss — or weight 25 pounds and qualified for classification as a blunt weapon.

Even if you don't pick this specific dictionary, all writers need access to a dictionary, even if you use define: word via google search. Writers need a strong vocabulary, and you learn that vocabulary through the use of dictionaries.

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire

I purchased this book in 2007 and sucked the little life right out of it, until a cat puked on my copy, that is. Fortunately, I had gleaned  lot of valuable information on just how much I sucked at grammar before its untimely demise.

There is quite a large amount of irony that so many reference books die at the hands paws mouths of my pets.

Like many of the other reference books I have listed, the Deluxe Transitive Vampire is a classic resource for those who want to improve their grammar and general language skills. This was a useful resource for me, especially as a beginner, and it is a book I'll likely acquire again in the future for my collection.

An important thing of note: Ever since I got my IKEA bookcase desk, I haven't lost a single reference book to spills or cats. I love my desk.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

This was the very first guide to writing science fiction and fantasy that I ever picked up. I found it used in a tiny little shop in the middle-of-nowhere northern Ontario. One of the best purchases I have ever made. This was also the first reference book I destroyed. Well, I still have my copy, but it is in really bad shape. This time, I can't blame my cats or spilling things on it. I read it many, many times.

If you write science fiction or fantasy, I strongly recommend that you get this book. You may not use the things suggested, but the insights into the methodology of writing these two genres, I feel, is invaluable.

On Writing – Stephen King

This isn't a reference book. It's a memoir. I loved this book. It's engaging, compelling, interesting, and a million other things all at once. You'll learn things about the writing craft, but more importantly, you'll learn about the journey King took to become the writer he is today.

I think that it's worth reading. It inspired me as much as it bothered me, and that's saying a lot. The memory of reading this book has stuck with me a long time. I've read it several times, though not recently.

When I feel like I can't manage as a writer, I pick up this book, I sit down, and I read it.

Then, I get back up, dust myself off, and I get back to work.

A Book That I Really, Really Want to Read:

Save the Cat

Save the Cat is a book that Mercedes Lackey spoke about at length at World Fantasy Convention 2012. It's a book meant for screenwriters, but it translates well to novels. I'm really curious about giving it a try, and will be the next reference book I purchase. Can't say much more to it than that, except it has been recommended to me by many different writers as a ‘Must Have' resource.

Concluding Thoughts:

This was a test of patience on my part. There are books that aren't listed here — mostly in the “Want to read this!” category. These books, however, have been the most intriguing and pivotal ones for me as a writer.

I hope you find a book or two that works for you and your writing style. Enjoy!


Leave a Comment:

1 comment
Miaka says February 28, 2013

Ack, how is it that I don’t have ANY of these? Some of them I keep thinking about getting but have yet to actually purchase…
I put most of them on my wishlist, but I skipped the Strunk and White book because I can’t see the usefulness of an e-book for reference. It’s fine for reading, but I’d rather have a paper reference book because it’s a lot easier to flip through.

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