A Writer’s and Self-Editor’s Reference Library

This is #1 of a series of 5 posts with tips and tasks related to self-editing. See the links at the bottom of the post for other articles in this series.

Writer and Self-editor reference library

So–you want to be a writer? You need a reference library!

Maybe you have been developing a great idea–fiction or non-fiction–for many years. Maybe you did well in your English classes in high school and university, and you think you’re ready to go! But are you, really?

It’s incredibly important to educate yourself (yes, again) even before you start writing. Learn in depth how to write and edit. You can, of course, take some courses, and you’d be very wise to join a local writers’ group where you can meet other writers who can help you. Maybe you’ll decide to attend a conference or two.

But most of all, you’ll want to start a personal library. Include essential, up-to-date reference materials. Don’t just store them on the shelf; read and study them. Keep them handy so you can refer to them often. A good quality library, well used, will be one of your best investments as a writer.

Some essentials for your writer’s and self-editor’s library are:

  • Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a great little book to get started with. Some people think it’s a bit conservative and old-fashioned, but it is frequently updated and will get you off to a great start.
  • One or more specialised style manuals, depending on your type of writing. An appropriate style guide (one suited to the type of writing) will help you learn the rules of writing in your genre, and will explain acceptable variations:
    • Associated Press (AP) Style manual for journalism and feature writing;
    • Chicago Manual of Style for technical, educational, and fiction works;
    • The Canadian Style guide if you are going to be writing for a Canadian audience;
    • MLA Handbook for academic writing;
    • Turabian’s A Manual For Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.
  • If you will be writing for a specific magazine, college assignments, or other similar writing, ask if they have a style manual they require their writers to use.
  • A top-notch dictionary, featuring the type of English your audience (Canadian, American, British, etc.) will expect, for example, The Canadian Oxford Dictionary–and possibly a dictionary of colloquialisms if you’re planning to write dialogue (for example, The Dictionary of Canadianisms).
  • A quick-reference spelling guide such as 50,000 Words (make sure it has the spelling suited to your major audience).
  • A copy of Roget’s Thesaurus or another quality thesaurus.
  • A writing handbook (such as The Little, Brown Handbook )–these handbooks have lots of “exercises” you can do to improve your writing skills; pick out areas of personal weakness and practice, practice, practice.
  • To learn to self-edit, consider purchasing a copy of Einsohn’s The Copy-editor’s Handbook.
  • If your collection of reference guides seems awfully heavy and plodding, you might also purchase an entertaining grammar guide that you’ll enjoy sitting and reading during relaxed times, such as The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed.
  • It is also essential to read widely in your genre(s), checking out the works of successful authors. Include both written and audio versions, and even view film versions.
  • Many well-known authors have also written books about how to write well in their genres. Here are a few suggestions from a variety of writers and genres:
    • The War of Art (Steven Pressfield)
    • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
    • Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott)
    • The Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron)
    • The Art and Craft of Memoir (William Zinsser)
    • Steering the Craft (Ursula Lle Guin)
    • The Faraway Nearby (Rebecca Solnit)
  • With today’s computer software, typos and punctuation are pretty much unforgivable! Choose a good quality grammar and spellcheck program; there are lots of great up-to-date reviews online (for example, this and this). While writing programs like Microsoft Word come with grammar and spell-check software, you might want to look into other options (free and paid) to find software that best serves your needs. Whatever you choose, be sure to check every underlined item your spelling and grammar check program flags.  But as you do, be careful. Auto checkers still make mistakes and miss things, and sometimes you are “breaking the rules” for a purpose the software doesn’t understand. Since you want to make your manuscript as perfect as you can in every way, include a good grammar/spell check program as part of your reference library. Remember, publishing a work that has errors risks your credibility as a writer.

What do you recommend for a writer’s reference library?

Please add your tips in the comments below. Thank you!

The posts in this series, Self-Editing Tips and Tasks, include:

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