This article was originally published in the summer 2003 issue of Beginnings Magazine.
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|Do I Really Knead Reference Books?
By Bill Glose
For the past three years Iíve served as the literary editor of Virginia Adversaria, and in that position Iíve mailed out countless rejection letters. Choosing what to publish from among the many excellent manuscripts submitted is always a tough choice. However most submissions, Iím sorry to say, are rejected without much hand wringing at all. They are rejected because the author obviously has no idea of style or correct usage. To illustrate this point, read the following excerpt from an actual e-mail query I received:
"As I got your email regarding job of writers, in concern of that I have huge self searched matter of different types of articles famous Indian authors. I you are interested I can send these matters through email , please reply soon."Though few submissions mangle the English language as badly as the above example, most contain some error or another. Multiple errors will always result in rejection. They signal that the writer has no sense of proper style and usage, or that the writer didnít care enough to edit the material. When competing for publication, you should only send in well-polished material, work that is error free and stylistically correct. A single grammatical error or typo will not necessarily ruin your chances, but it certainly doesnít help.
A solid background in English is a good start, but it is only a start. Engineers, no matter how much theyíve studied and how confident they are in their abilities, still consult resource books when building bridges and other structures. They check tensile strength, composite material properties, and other data integral to their project. But many writers conduct their work without using any references at all, as if doing so would admit a lack of knowledge.
However, successful writers have learned that keeping reference books on hand is not only wise, but also necessary. David Poyer, best-selling author of The Circle and twenty-seven other books, says he uses "Strunk & White, Bartlettís, Rogetís, an art reference, almanacs, Shakespeare, several quotation books in various languages, a Seven Language Dictionary, OED, and Fowlerís. I need and use them all!"
When working professionally at the craft of writing, you should arm yourself with the proper manuals. All writers should keep a dictionary, thesaurus, and style guide within easy reach whenever sitting down to write. Those are the basics. Depending upon what youíre writing, you may need to utilize other reference books as well, but those first three are integral to any writing project.
When writing for publication, most writers work with editors who help clean up sloppy prose. However, many print-on-demand sources provide no editorial assistance, so whatever the author submits makes it into print no matter how poorly constructed. It is up to those authors to ensure the accuracy and form of the text.
Keeping a dictionary handy when youíre writing is just common sense. When a word comes to mind that you think is right, but youíre just not sure, a quick trip through the dictionary can save you from future embarrassment. Even if your search only confirms your hunch, you will have allayed your niggling doubts.
Sue Corbett, The Miami Heraldís childrenís book reviewer, believes that all writers should keep a good dictionary on hand. She says, "I canít believe how many times I see poorly chosen words. I was just reading something where the author wrote that a mother wrung her hands on a dish-towel. I know she meant wiped or dried or something like that, but she mixed it up. So she was either wringing her hands or she was drying them. I see that all the time, where people choose the wrong word."
English is a difficult enough language to master without relying solely on your memory. As technological advances give birth to new terms and cultural phrases from other countries migrate into English dictionaries, our language grows to unwieldy proportions. The Oxford English Dictionary omits numerous regional words, slang, and scientific terms numbering in the millions. Yet still, that compendium lists about 500,000 words. In comparison, the German language contains about 185,000 words and French has fewer than 100,000.
Since the English language is constantly evolving, B. C. Walsh, a free-lance writer published in numerous national publications, recommends purchasing a new dictionary every five years or so. "Pay attention to what youíre buying," he says, "because not all dictionaries are the same, or even equal. Some give the definitions as the words are most commonly used, some give definitions as most commonly understood, and a select few give only the correct definition. The best course of action is to have three dictionaries on hand, none older than ten years, and all by different publishers. And read the prefaces, forewords, and introductions; that way you will learn what the lexicographers who put the thing together think about the language."
THESAURUS OR SYNONYM FINDER
A good thesaurus or synonym finder will enable you to communicate precisely. Sometimes you know what you want to say, but the exact word is just out of reach. If you want to say that something smells bad, but "stinky" doesnít quite convey your meaning, you can look up "stink" in the thesaurus. Under that listing you will find: fetid, foul, musty, noxious, putrid, rancid, rank, rotten, smelly, and numerous other synonyms. If youíre describing rotten food, you might choose rancid; if youíre describing vapors emanating from a container, you might choose noxious. But if the only thing that came to your mind at the outset was "stinky," you might never have considered those words.
It is also wise to turn to the thesaurus when you find yourself repeating the same word over and over again, particularly if it is an uncommon one. If you are writing a battle scene and use the word "vanquish" several times in short succession, the prose will seem awkward to the reader. But a quick search of your synonym finder identifies other choices for you to use, such as conquer, rout, subdue, and triumph.
Though a dictionary and a thesaurus answer many writing questions, they should not be used as a style guide. The first two books describe how to use single words, while a style guide shows how to join those words together into a cohesive sentiment. Style guides detail such things as grammar, punctuation, and principles of composition.
William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. Whiteís The Elements of Style is the foundation upon which all other style manuals are built. This book teaches one to omit the unnecessary and make "every word tell." When researching this article, every author I contacted claimed that Strunk and White was a necessity. As Walsh put it, "Without this book you arenít ready for any other style guide."
The Elements of Style is a slim enough volume to be read at one sitting and basic enough to be understood by even the most inexperienced writer. After mastering The Elements of Style, you should incorporate another style guide into your arsenal, choosing whatever best fits your writing.
Terry Cox-Joseph, coordinator of the Christopher Newport University Writerís Conference for the past ten years and author of the book, Adjustments, says that she relies on both the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual and The Chicago Manual of Style in her writing. "I began using The Chicago Manual of Style when I worked at The Denbigh Gazette. If I had a question about something in an article, Iíd just grab the book and get an immediate answer. Even now, itís a helpful thing to fall back on. Everyone gets stuck. Language is always changing, so itís wise to turn to the experts when you have a question."
Style guides are especially important when working in specialized fields. If you are writing an article for Psychology Today, you had better follow the American Psychological Association Style Guide. But even if you are writing general articles, you will still need to consult specific manuals. Some newspapers use the AP Style Guide while others use The Chicago Manual of Style. It is important to know which guide your market uses and familiarize yourself with that style.
In addition to a good style guide, you might want to keep a copy of Bill Brysonís Dictionary of Troublesome Words on hand. As the title suggests, the book describes words that are often used improperly. Bryson cites many humorous instances where words have been misused by trusted media sources, and the tone is casual enough that you might find yourself reading it for pure pleasure. Here are two entries that typify Brysonís style:
Affect, effect: As a verb, affect means to influence ("Smoking may affect your health") or to adopt a pose or manner ("She affected ignorance"). Effect as a verb means to accomplish ("The prisoners effected an escape"). As a noun, the word needed is almost always effect (as in "personal effects" or "the damaging effects of war"). Affect as a noun has a narrow psychological meaning to do with emotional states (by way of which it is related to affection).OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS
Depending upon the scope of your work, you may want to use other reference books as well. Here are a few others you might want to consider:
The Ultimate Visual Dictionary
The Ultimate Visual Dictionary acts as a visual link between pictures and words. Through a combination of detailed annotations, explicit photographs, and illustrations, this book describes a vast range of things, from plants and animals to machines and everyday objects. If you know what something looks like but donít know its name, you can find the answer in the annotations surrounding the pictures. If you know that something is a component of something else, but donít understand how it fits together, you can find the answer here. The Ultimate Visual Dictionary not only dissects humans and other animals, but also displays the anatomy of cars, ships, and various other machines. The bookís scope ranges from heavenly bodies to everyday items, such as toasters and chairs. If a chair breaks in your story, you might want to build tension by describing how the seatís side rail is slowly slipping out of the mortice slot cut into the leg. The Ultimate Visual Dictionary shows you how these items fit together and come apart.
Books on the writing life
Reading any book that sheds light on the mystery of writing is always a good idea for writers. Kathleen Brehony, author of Ordinary Grace and others, sums up the need quite well. "I have hundreds of books about writing," she says. "I have a craving to read anything that explains this passion and how to do it well." Her favorites are Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. Stephen Marlowe, author of the best-selling Lighthouse at the End of the World, recommends Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert Mckee. He says, "This book is so incisive that for me it renders all others superfluous. The subject matter is, specifically, screenwriting, but it is simple to put the mechanics of screenwriting aside and see what the author has to say on the writing of fiction in general, which is considerable and always freshly to the point."
The Writerís Market
There is a market for every type of writing, but if you want your work to be published then you need to submit it to the proper market. Fortunately there are guides to assist you in this endeavor. The Writerís Market, The Novel & Short Story Writerís Market, The Poetís Market, and other guides are updated constantly and published annually. They list all types of markets (magazines, book publishers, agents, web sites), name the editors, describe what material they want, how much they pay, and provide their submission deadlines.
If most of your writing can be classified as belonging to a particular genre, then you might consider using a book tailored to your specific needs. Each genre has a different requirement. When writing a mystery heavy in police procedure, it might pay to invest in such books as Scene of the Crime, or Murder One: A Writerís Guide to Homicide. Romance, science fiction, and most other specific genres all have helpful guides as well.
One genre that deserves added consideration is historical fiction. In addition to reading specific guides on writing in this genre, such as How to Write Historical Fiction, by Roberta Gellis, writers would be wise to research the proper tone and voice for their storyís time frame. Doris Gwaltney, author of Shakespeareís Sister, says, "In writing the historical novel, I research by reading biographies of people who lived in the period I am writing about. Somehow, in reading biography, the historical material is more personalized. I am led to see history as it directly applies to a human life and thus to my protagonist."
I feel that each poet should keep reference books readily available to the working environment. I do not feel that every writer will benefit from using the same books. For example, some writers feel comfortable relying on a desk dictionary, whereas I opt for the unabridged version. The key to building a successful reference library is selectivity. Keep handy those books that are absolutely essential to you. What another writer recommends might be worthless to your own act of creating. In essence, follow the dictates of your writing material.