Thursday, April 14, 2011

Useful Tools for Writers

As we near the end of the alphabet, I'd like to welcome Jim Woods back with us to talk about U (no, not you), but Useful Tools for Writers.

In the mid 1960s when I finally was able to return to college, following my military duty and starting a family, and having put a career in electronics engineering behind me in favor of journalism, I was introduced to a handy little booklet that would be part of my literary life forever. The compact writers guide is still a part of my literary reference library that has grown to two-dozen volumes of writing advice, tips, and most importantly, style. According to the authors, that sixty-page, half-size Guide to Rapid Revision was not intended as a course book for creative writing, but a quick reference source of frequently needed answers to style and writing-convention questions. Somewhat later I added yet another slim, small and extremely useful book of writing rules to my resources, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

I was to be governed by several other publication style guides over my writing life, some huge and heavy ones dictated by the military, and other commercial and medical tomes equally impressive in size and scope, but those earlier concise guidebooks molded me as an author.

Of all the writers guidebooks available in print and on line, perhaps the most useful for book authors is The Chicago Manual of Style. Its history goes back well over a century, when the University of Chicago Press opened its doors in 1891. At that time, The Press was dedicated to publishing scientific works from the university’s own professors. To bring a common set of rules to the process, the composing room staff drew up style guidelines. “The University Press Style Book and Style Sheet” grew into a more substantial pamphlet and the pamphlet grew into a book with the impressive title, Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended specimens of type in use. At two hundred pages, this original First Edition cost fifty cents, plus six cents for postage and handling. Now in its 16th edition, The Chicago Manual of Style, with more than a thousand pages in print or more than two thousand paragraphs online, has become the authoritative reference work for authors, editors, proofreaders, copywriters and publishers.

On the other hand, journalists are better served by The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. The friendly title is simply “AP Stylebook,” but by whatever name, it is a style and usage guide for the United States news industry. Incidentally, the volume on my personal reference shelf is “…and Libel Manual” instead of the updated “… and Briefing on Media Law.” The lesson from this is that all style manuals are updated and re-released as time and convention requires. The AP Stylebook is used by reporters and editors as a guide for grammar, punctuation and principles and practices of reporting. It’s also considered an industry standard for broadcasters, magazines and public relations firms.

From time to time I use both styleguides—the Chicago Manual most often—but a third such manual in my library is the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Assocation. Obviously from that impressive title, it’s quite a specialized writing guide. I purchased it for one time use, needing it for an editing commission, but it certainly looks impressive on my bookshelf.

These widely accepted styleguides are superceded by the individual publishers’ in-house style conventions. However, if you start out adhering to The Chicago Manual of Style if you’re writing books; or the The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law if you’re writing for broadcast or other print media, you can’t be too far from wrong in the eyes of your editor.

If these strict style guides are seen as mandatory requirements by some publishers, authors can learn much from the plethora of less-restrictive writing-tip books available from a number of successful authors, and written in conversational style. But whatever writers’ aid books you choose, the basic collection must be anchored by a good dictionary—mine weighs fifteen pounds and requires its own pedestal stand—and a print thesaurus. Another reference that I depend on, and I do not know if it is available in a recent printing, is J.I. Rodale’s The Word Finder, which does not find substitute words as does a thesaurus, but suggests words to embellish an idea. Don’t settle for a pretty sunset if that sunset can be crimson, brilliant, fiery, lingering or glorious.

What it boils down to is that to be a sucessful writer you first had better become a studious reader. Everything you ever need to know is in the book.

~ * ~

Jim Woods is an independent editor assisting book authors, small presses and corporations with line, style, and substance editing; applying his expertise to novels, short story collections, nonfiction and corporate image. Formerly, he was in-house Editor, Managing Editor and Contributing Editor with two commercial magazine publishers. His professional associations include American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). He lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.

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He is author of the fiction collection, CABBAGES AND KINGS, and other fiction works with Champagne Books:



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Infogypsy said...

Nice to see some guidelines for authors. You've listed some good ones for us. Good luck with your anthology.

Marie McGaha said...

Wow, you sound really smart! And I like that in a man! Thanks for the useful info, I appreciate it when people who are much smarter and better informed than I pass along their knowledge.

Rie McGaha

Anonymous said...

Thanks Romaine and Rie. My pleasure Jim

Anonymous said...

I'm not really anonymous. It's just that I can't get this Open ID thing to work for me. My web site is

Palmaltas said...

Jim said, "But whatever writers’ aid books you choose, the basic collection must be anchored by a good dictionary—mine weighs fifteen pounds and requires its own pedestal stand—and a print thesaurus."

I agree and have no idea how much mine weighs but it's three volumes and each volume is very heavy. At the end of the last volume are several foreign language to Engish dictionaries such as German to English and Spanish to English. I never thought I'd need the German until I did a ghost-writing gig for a friend who set his novel in WWII Germany.

Anonymous said...

That 15-pounder is just my English Dictionary. I have Zulu, Shona and Afrikaans translations as well to use with my South bAfrica stories.

Fiona McGier said...

I wonder how much longer things like dictionaries will be published on dead trees? Seems to me that the frequency of changes is better suited to eBooks...easier to add/delete words. Same thing with books on style, since conventions can change. Thanks for the suggestions on useful books.