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Writing Resources — Dictionaries & Style Guides

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Over my mumble-mumble years of writing and editing, I’ve collected a toolkit of resources to help me not screw things up too badly, and I’m constantly discovering more.

If you’re looking to assemble your own arsenal of writing resources, there’s no better place to start than with a dictionary or two and a style guide.

Dictionaries

The first thing every writer needs is a good dictionary.

Choose one (or more, if you write for different audiences with their own lexicons) as your go-to for spelling and usage questions. Using a single(ish) source of truth will help you stay consistent, which keeps your editor happy. (And a happy editor is a key part of a happy life for a writer. Trust me.)

There are lots of dictionaries to choose from, from the American standby, Merriam-Webster to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (known to word-nerds everywhere as the OED), and fortunately, many are available online for free.

The one I use for my HP fic is Lexico.com, which is powered by Oxford University Press (the folks behind the OED). It allows you to select U.S. or U.K. English, and entries give American and British variants, which is useful if you, like me, can’t for the life of you remember whether Dumbledore has a gray or grey beard. The online Macmillan Dictionary has a similar function.

I tend to avoid online-only offerings like Google Dictionary and Dictionary.com because I’m old-skool and really only trust the folks for whom lexicography is life, but they’re likely perfectly fine for most purposes.

Style Guides

Like dictionaries, style guides (also called style manuals) are essential tools if you want to conform to accepted conventions of writing.

They provide guidance on punctuation, spelling, style, usage, text formatting, and other wordy things. While they contain useful information on language conventions, it’s important to understand that style guides aren’t absolute rules. Good ones provide suggestions—and the reasoning behind them—that can help you make your writing clearer and more consistent.

There are many style manuals in regular use, some of them geared toward specialized audiences, but I’m going to highlight the ones I’ve found most useful for fiction.

Often used in the U.S. are:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style ~ this comprehensive manual is aimed at academic writing, but it’s often used by editors and publishers of fiction and other genres in the U.S. The ChiMan style is a bit fussy and pedantic, but it’s an invaluable resource when it comes to improving the clarity of your writing. It’s my main source.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook ~ a standard for U.S.-based journalists for decades, the AP Stylebook emphasizes simplicity and concision. It’s updated frequently to reflect changes in society, and the editors send out frequent updates and guides to subscribers on topics related to current events.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage ~ a meticulously researched guide with a definite point of view (lexicographer Bryan A. Garner’s) on many points of contention. In addition to the usual sections on usage, the book includes essays on style and an index on changes in language that traces the evolution of some usages and notes their levels of common acceptance.
  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook ~ this guidebook is a simpler cousin to the venerable ChiMan.

In the U.K., the usual suspects include:

  • New Hart’s Rules (a.k.a. The Oxford Style Manual) ~ a standard in the U.K. for general writing and publishing, this guide has been around for more than a century, but it’s not fusty or out of date.
  • The Economist Style Guide ~ aimed at U.K.-based journalists, this guide defends a distinctly British writing style.

I’d also like to plug one of my favorite language books of the last few years, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. As you may guess from the wry title, it’s less a style guide than the author’s personal take on language (he’s long been the copy chief for Random House), a subject he takes very seriously but treats with great humor. It’s a terrific read, even if you aren’t looking for answers about where to put the goddamn commas.

Making Your Own Style Sheet

If you write fiction, I highly recommend creating your own style sheet that includes your general preferences plus anything that is specific to each work.

That way, you won’t have to waste time going back through 25 chapters of your Wolfstar epic to figure out if you capitalized Hippogriff.

I’d suggest starting by selecting a dictionary and a professional style guide to use as a basis for your style sheet, adding entries on the types of things you’re likely to need to look up (treatment of numbers, dashes, and so forth, for me), and tweaking the style sheet to meet your needs, noting where you differ from the dictionary and guide. Also note word spellings and treatments that are unique to your work. Some folks also put character and world-building notes here, but I find that makes the style sheet a bit crowded, so I keep them separate.

You can download a sample of the style sheet I made for my Epithalamium series here.

I keep an updated list of suggested writing resources here.