Friday, October 3, 2008

Reference Books

I have several shelves of reference books in my writing library. All came highly recommended, most have gone unread. Books on writing (character development, plot development, the art of storytelling...), books on editing, books on the business of writing (query letters, synopses, finding an agent, finding a publisher, etc., etc.), books on marketing. They used to mock me from across the room. "Stop typing," they'd shout. "You can't write a decent story until you've read us."

There was a time when I caught myself using these books as an excuse to not write. I told myself I needed to learn more, read one more book, take one more class. But that approach didn't get words on the page. That's why those books are on a bookshelf on the other side of the room. I've taped a sheet of paper to the front of the bookcase to remind me not to fall into that trap again. That sheet of paper contains Heinlein's Rules of writing:

1) You Must Write

2) Finish What You Start

3) You Must Refrain from Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

4) You Must Put Your Story on the Market

5) You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

6) Start Working on Something Else

The most controversial of these, of course, is number three. Some people interpret this rule as an excuse to not edit their work before sending it out. Would this approach work for you? I know it most definitely would not work for me. I can't say I know what Heinlein meant by this rule. I never met the man. I do know what every writer knows. It is possible to spend a lifetime wordsmithing a single piece. We tend to feel our work is never "finished", never perfect. We can always make it better with one more rewrite.

I would never put a first draft in the mail. I choose to interpret number three differently. I have an editing process - a checklist of things to look for on each pass. Only the first three passes involve what I would consider "rewriting". The rest are pure editing passes - each with a specific focus. When I complete the list, it is time to get that work in the mail and move on.

Does this mean I write and edit without ever opening a reference book? Not a chance. The three books I use most often sit on my desk, within easy reach - an unabridged dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style (it's what my publisher uses), and my favorite - Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (replaced my thesaurus the day I found it - it explains subtle differences in word meaning and connotation).

What reference books to you keep within easy reach?

Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, Publicity Director for The Final Twist Writers Society and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:


  1. The unabridged Webster's Dictionary of the English Language. "I calls him Dic 'cause we went to school together." :)

    Penny Dreadful

  2. Charlotte,

    My inner critic is definitely active when I begin a new writing project. It's good to know I have company.

    Would you be willing to share the list you use during your revision process?

  3. Because I grade a LOT of freshman comp essays, I always have the Harbrace Handbook and A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker. For mass comm., I keep the AP Stylebook on the desk. And I love dictionaries, so I have maybe four different ones in my school office and three at home.

  4. Reference books

    Webster's Dictionary
    New Oxford Dictionary
    Tora, Koran, King James and NIV Bible (I use them as historical documents)
    Writing for Bare Bones - awesome handbook
    Writing Styles - another awesome handbook

    Those are the ones that I know off the top of my head.

  5. The OED sits next to my television set. Does that count?

  6. Roget's International Thesaurus because it gives so many alternates for a word that it sends me off to places I hadn't considered.

  7. Roget's Thesaurus
    Oxford and Webster's dictionaries

  8. Oh, and I used to read Strunk & White for fun. I need to do it again...and stop blaming "mommy brain" for my wordiness.

  9. Someone said STRUNK, and I forgot I have that one, too. I'm also using William Zinsser's book ON WRITING WELL for my writing for the media course, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. Read it all the time - it always has a good nugget of info in it.

  10. Sounds like I need to investigate my shelves across the room to make sure I haven't buried any of the gems you've mentioned.

    Shelley, I'd love to share the process I use. It varies a bit depending on publisher style rules. As soon as I organize my thoughts, I'll put together another post. Thanks for the suggestion.

    P. Price - Does OED stand for Oxford English Dictionary or for something else?



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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