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A Writer's Reference Shelf
– Feb. 15, 2013

Yes, I admit, I am a reference geek. I love the smell of thesaurus in the morning. So what I am doing here is setting up what I myself have as a reference desk, what I think every creative writer would find so useful that each – once purchased and made one’s own – would become indispensable. There is also a touch of commentary and recommendation – and things not as good what you might thing. But of course, what’s the point if you are not going to separate the seed from the chaff.



Over the decades of my life I have noticed that dictionaries, in the universal effort of publishing companies to be universally low-brow, have greatly deteriorated in quality. Or, more precisely, the market for dictionaries has been overwhelmed with less that worthy efforts. I have seen definitions in dictionaries labeled “College Dictionary” with definitions do dumbed-down as to have been grossly inaccurate. (After all, why have seven definitions of a word when you can blur four together and drop three to make two, something that fits much more neetly in our that over-sized printing that makes things look, what is it now?, less academic and more user friendly. Besides, we need more space for even more illustrations and ‘did you know?’ boxes.)

Webster's Unabridged: Which is to say, be careful. Most dictionaries out there – especially if they say “College” or “Academic” – are crap. Beside, if you are serious about writing, you should have a Webster’s Unabridged within reach, and there is no excuse for otherwise. Flat out, no excuse. If you feel the need to argue yourself out of the fundamental necessity, then please put down your pens, and step away from the keyboard, and save us all.

Funk and Wagnall’s Pocket: As for the ‘pocket’ dictionary class, something to throw in your bookbag if you so wish, there is but one: Funk and Wagnall’s. Every other pocket dictionary I have picked up I have found either doesn’t have the words (or definition) I’m seeking; or has errors. Unfortunately, you pretty much have to use the UK Amazon or such to get it – unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon it in the store. (And, yes, calling it a ‘pocket’ dictionary is a stretch. But it’s worth it.)

Oxford English Dictionary:The absolute. The unparalleled. And writers can get more out of it than you could possibly imagine -- I use it a thousand ways to midnight. Expensive, yes (I finally got mine as a gift); but, if you keep your eyes open you can get the microprint for less than a couple hundred.

Grammar/Style Manuals


There are many formal grammar books: Harbrace, McMillan, St. Martin’s, just to name three more frequently seem. They are useful in that, unlike a style manual, they will attempt to explain the rules of grammar and syntax – very helpful things. Unfortunately, they seem to change from year to year as to which is the more useful – my guess is because they decide one year to make the book “very helpful” to composition classes, then realize the next that most of what they threw in was mostly ignored as pointless. They are written primarily toward use in college writing classes, and so are constantly trying to appeal to whatever is du jour in composition – and if you know anything about what is du jour in rhet-comp texts, you know that it’s about as valuable and long lasting as a Brittney Spears, top-ten hit. (It used to be St. Martin’s seemed the most level headed – I can’t vouch for that, now, though.)

So, what you do, is check out your used book stores. You do not need the most recent. Just get one that is less than a decade old or so. Find one you like, slap down the three bucks and be happy. Never buy them new. They bring out new editions every other year, and sell them by the millions to college students – so there are plenty floating around.

Finally, as a general rule, stay away from pop press books on grammar. Even ones written by supposed experts. For example, Comma Sense, by Richard Lederer and John Shore, supposed grammar experts, has such terrifically bad advice on comma usage (ironically) that the rest of the book becomes moot. If you want to be writer, buy the real thing.



The Synonym Finder: The best thesaurus out there, head over shoulders, is J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder. It has a great ease of use. It is very thorough. And it has that high degree of redundancy necessary for a good thesaurus. (Which is to say, you are not limited in what you get by the first word you chose to look up: anywhere you start, you will most likely get to where you want to go.) It also tends to have far larger entries than what you normally find in other thesauri. Now, this amplifies the danger inherent to thesauri of using words incorrectly, so you have to take more care. But that is a good thing. This book is very much worth the money spent. I have recommended this book many times over the years, and have always received high praise in gratitude.

Now, do other thesauri have use? Yes, I have also Roget’s Super Thesaurus, and do use it; but that is extra. You should be reaching first for Rodale’s.

Hartrampf's Vocaularies:I have recently come upon an old (1929) copy this little gem. It is a kind of thesauri but organizes the words within it into families based upon twenty-four “ideas,” like “odor,” “unity,” and “passageways” (to pick three that will wholly leave you wondering -- it would take a lot of space here to be more clear). What this offers that a regular thesaurus does not is a greater degree of metaphorical relationships, rather than simply synonymic/antonymic relationships. I’ve only just found this, and, unfortunately, my copy is somewhat fragile, so it can’t bear frequent use. But there is no small value here to writers, especially those to the poetic or lyrical bend. (To note: this book does come back into print, but under different titles, and I am not yet sure what the difference between the titles is.)

Rhyming Dictionary


An obvious necessity for poets. (Do not fall for the nonsense that great poets do not need rhyming dictionaries. They all owned them.) But, also, an unbelievably useful tool for prose-writers as well. I can not tell you how many times I have had a word on the tip of my tongue that I was able to find because “it sound’s like X.” You might not use it often, but when you do, you will be glad you spent the eight bucks (or whatever). I have not really made a comparison of rhyming dictionaries, and use Penguin’s myself. Though, I have seen older rhyming dictionaries in used book stores that seemed well worth the expenditure. Keep your eyes open.

Word Encyclopedias


What I am talking about here are books whose purpose is to give you words collected around various subjects. Their primary purpose is to present lists of words, so how much information is offered with the words varies. (You should be looking the words up, anyway, just to be sure.).


The Word Menu: by Stephen Glazier, printed by Random House. BUY THIS BOOK. This is, singularly, the most useful reference book I own. Everyone I know who owns one treasures it. Don’t think; don’t question. Just buy this book. I see now it is back in print in paperback for eight bucks, so no excuses. Just get the book, and then send me money in appreciation. (In print and revised and updated, so now I gotsta get me a new one.)


Visual Dictionaries


I have the Kindersley Ultimate Visual Dictionary myself. While I would not ever call this is a four-star tool, it has served me well many times, though frequently only as a launching pad. Which is worth explaining: don’t expect your reference works to have it all in one place. Sometimes, a book’s best purpose is merely to point you in a direction.

I also have Pheby’s What’s That?: The Oxford Visual Dictionary of Nearly Everything. “28,000 Entries” means it has a lot of detail. For example, twenty pages on ships alone. (Can’t remember what the third cross beam up on the front mast of a three-masted sailing ship is called. It can tell you.) The illustrations are not as detailed as Kindersley, however. So I have had to check to make sure what I thought was it was telling me was a hipschikky was, in fact, a hipschikky.

I’m not saying these are the best two – in talking with others it seems to me there is a great degree of taste involved in what works best for whom. Test them out for yourself. (But, if see them in a used bookstore: they might be worth dropping some loose dollars to give a full tryout.)


Specialized Encyclopedias and Dictionaries


These are the gateway drugs into the world of detail. If you are writing about a specific subject – be it deserts, space flight, law, dance, or whaling –, there very well may be (and probably will be) an encyclopedia, glossary, or dictionary out there that will be a mountain of help toward getting you fluent in the subject. And on the general side, field guides (which cover plants, animals, rocks and minerals, even weather and climate) offer plenty of choice detail. Many, many writers keep a shelf filled with them.


Symbols Dictionaries


Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols and The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols: Another tool that on the surface might seem to be more useful for those anchored in poetry or the lyric, but in fact is incredibly useful across the board. Symbols dictionaries are excellent tools for expanding the language, ideation, and content of a text. Reading the entry on cats, for example, could fill your lap with plenty of places to go to flush out a text. These two I consider the two primary books in the area: there are many others to be found, but they tend to be more table-top, conversation pieces that worthy reference books, and, thus, pale in comparison – even if they do have pictures.


Specific to Poetry:


Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: If you are a poet, there is no excuse for you no owning this work. Everything you need to know about poetry and more.

The Book of Forms: a.k.a. “Turco’s.” Something to spur ideas, to challenge you, and to make you sound smarter than you actually are about poetry.

The Tools of the Trade


Wordperfect Professionals use Wordperfect. Why? Because Word is good for writing letters to grandmother. Anything more complex than that, and you will be pulling your hair out. Word’s nonsensical formatting method makes formatting twice as hard, and working with large texts (like novels or collections of poems) near impossible. I cannot tell you how many times I helped acquaintances clean up texts written in Word. (How do I do it? Translate to Wordperfect, clean it up, translate back). I find it an embarrassment to the literary industry that WP is not openly preferred. But, such is the powers of having a monopoly.

Now, this does not mean you have to spend $300 on a new program. Go online and buy an older version. (I got mine for $30.) Unless you are planning on opening a publishing business, you do not need the bells and whistles. (And, when you do, you will be happy to pay the $300 or $500 or whatever.)

Maevis Beacon Teaches Typing: Hands down, the best $35 I have spent, ever, in my life, ever. If you cannot type, learn. Not being able to touch-type is a colossally inefficient way to write. Once you learn, you will be sooooooo happy you did. I suggest here Maevis because it is what I used, and I was very happy with it. (There is freeware out there, but I've never seen anything as good, really.) Whichever you prefer, buy a program; spend the time; learn it; and be happy. It’s that easy.

Dragon Naturally Speaking: This is an incredibly useful tool, especially for research. I would sit and read, and when I wanted to, I would tap a key to read passages into my notes. I have not used this recently (my version is very old). I am told, now, that the program’s learning curve is much quicker than what it was, which is a good thing (before, it recommended three months to train the software to hear the idiosyncracies of your voice). A bit pricy to just try out – but if you have the chance, you might find it a valuable tool.