Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Handy Reference Books for Writers

Beyond the standard dictionaries and thesauri, writers need reference books-- yes, "books." I find there's a frantic quality to wracking the Web for fact-checking and grammar answers, and all those other intimate things writers find they need to know while wrestling with their work. Few writers ever feel sure they're doing these things correctly. A book waits and watches until it is needed. It won't overwhelm you with answers. Favorites:

Brunner, Borgna, Time Almanac 2006. Information Please, 2006. A fat expensive book that when superseded by the next year's edition, costs a quarter, and 99 percent of its information is the same.

Buchanon-Brown, John. Le Mot Juste: A Dictionary of Classical and Foreign Words and Phrases, Vintage, 1981. How often I hope to use this book to insert smart-sounding Latin, French, Spanish, German, etc. words and phrases into my work and conversation -- and almost never do, except for "Schadenfreude."

Dornan and Dawe, The Brief English Handbook, Third Edition, Scott-Foresman, 1990. For grammar conundrums.

King James Bible; get one with a built-in concordance so you can find who said, and where, "if you do it for one of the least of those, you do it for Me," the number-one Bible quotation appearing in personal essay drafts.

Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide. (Buy them a few years old, for a dime), Signet.

Packer, Tenney and White, All the People and Places of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982. You will need this when it is time to pronounce the name "Habakkuk" (Ha-BAK-uck) and inform your readers that it's Hebrew for "love's embrace."

Sambuchino, Chuck, and the Editors of Writer's Digest Books, Formatting and Submitting Your Manuscript, Third Edition, Writer's Digest Books, 2009. (Pictured.) Model manuscripts and query and cover letters. For $22.95 you can forego all that inner-Q&A stress about formatting.

Siepmann, Katherine, editor, Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Third Edition. Harper and Row, 1987. 1100 pages of short bios of writers, synopses of famous books and plays, and the literary significance of things such as mandrakes and The Mauve Decade (the 1890s).


  1. Thank you! Most of these are new to me!

    Some of my own suggestions:

    The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale. Warner Books. It's a thesaurus on steroids, and it's been invaluable to me.

    The Ultimate Visual Dictionary by DK Publishing and/or the Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary by Oxford U. Press. When you don't know what a thing is called to name it, you find it here.

    QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson. Published by Facts on File, Inc. So much fun!

    Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick. Oxford U. Press. When you want to understand everything from the Absurd to Zeugma.

    Dictionary of Mythology by Bergen Evans (Dell). Because what event doesn't have a great mythological mirror?


    Bartlett's Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett. (a classic)

  2. I like the Oxford English Dictionary available on a CD. That's the entire 22 volume dictionary.

  3. Whoops. Somehow Bartlett's got separated from the rest! He was an afterthought, I suppose. :-)