A Writer's Reference Shelf
– Feb. 15, 2013
– Oct 25, 2023

Yes, I admit, I am a reference geek. I love the smell of thesaurus in the morning. What I thought to do here is talk about a basic reference desk, things not only useful to a creative writer but, perhaps, necessary. Or, at least, found to be necessary after using them for a while. I will go through by category, adding my two cents worth as to what is great and what is not so great.


I have rewritten this, as of October 2023, added a new item or two, to make some corrections, and to update some entries. And, simply, to give a little rewrite.



The question these days is whether one needs a print dictionary anymore. There are major resources on-line which might seem to have supplanted any such need. Plus, twenty odd years ago it was quite noticeable that print dictionaries were dumbing down. Most so-called "collegiate" dictionaries looked written for middle schoolers. Indeed, I even found entries that were so overly simplified as to be grossly incomplete or, even, incorrect.

That, of course was not universal. And there are still print dictionaries worth getting. To be honest, I do not know why you would look farther than the Oxford English Dictionary line, though. They are the best, and they are well made and affordable. The paperback OED is $12. And if you want to spend you can get the two-volume, Shorter OED for $125. There are those in between. I have a treasured microprint of the complete OED, which I am sure you can find. And I do use it. Second to the OED is, of course, Webster's. Though, I will say I have not looked in a Webster's collegiate recently so I do not know if it suffers from the dumbing down. But you can get an unabridged for not a lot at all, if you have the shelf space.

Pocket dictionaries are greatly buyer beware. The more they fit into a pocket, the more they will tend to problems in their offering. The best by far is Funk and Wagnalls, but it may be out of print. (And it is a British press.)

That dictionaries are in print does not give reason why to own one. The main reason to is it is easier to use than the online versions, and they have more information. But, push comes to shove, the online dictionaries will suffice.

Of course, the one to go to is the online OED [link]. Unfortunately, the more five dollar the word the greater the chance it is behind a paywall. Which is why a hardcopy OED is worth having, especially if what you write gives need of knowing word histories and fuller definitions.

Behind the OED, and not behind a paywall, is Dictionary.com. It is a fairly full bodied dictionary. Occasionally I find a definition I am unsatisfied with; though, its main drawbacks are in site design: sometimes it takes forever to load, and sometimes it throws you into the thesaurus without warning.

Online Encyclopedias


I am talking about sites by such as Encyclopedia.com and Encyclopedia Britannica. I stopped using them years ago because I saw so many errors in them, particularly errors of false intent created by the desire for brevity and errors of omission. These are not entries written by scholars. If you need a go to starting point on research, go to Wikipedia, which footnotes everything. That is where you start. But, then, if you are going to use the web for research, then learn how to use the web for research.

Grammar/Style Manuals


In undergrad writing courses I am sure you bought a collegiate style guide, be it Harbrace, McMillan, St. Martin's, or such. These are useful, though they have the drawback in that they tend to be written to the rhet/comp fads of the day. So a lot of the style information may not be as helpful as you hope, may even be deceiving, and may be written in a very loose if not useless manner.

In your first year essay writing course and when you started upper classes that demanded essays, you used either The MLA Handbook, or The Chicago Manual of Style, or APA, or whatever your field demanded. These are the meatier texts, and these are what should be on your reference shelf. At least, Chicago should be. Unless you are writing essays in a field, Chicago is almost always going to be the publishing standard. That is what you should have; that is what you should use. Strunk and White does not cut it.

Now, do not think you need to buy the most recent version. It does not change that much over the years. I am using the 14th edition, which is 30 years old, and it suits me just fine. (It does not have the best index, but there you go.) In truth, the new 18th edition is coming out soon, after which I might buy a 17th edition when its price drops. But I am sure anything 14th or later is fine.

Usage Manuals


My newest addition to the shelf. What these are are that useful part of Strunk and White that tells you when to use affect and when to use effect. Of course the books are much more loaded than that little chapter. David Foster Wallace had all his students buy one and I will admit they are incredibly useful. Not to mention a lot of fun to browse through. Now the contenders are Garner's Modern English Usage (which I believe used to be The Dictionary of Modern American Usage) and the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, which, confusingly, is also by Bryan A. Garner. I have the out of print Dictionary, which will serve. To note, some of the reviews say the most recent edition of the Oxford gutted the previous edition and is not nearly as good. So keep that in mind. Give a little research before you buy, and let price be your guide. (It could be, in the end, the differences are dress.)



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. That said, this book is very much worth the money spent. If you are going to buy one reference book, this is it. 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, if very infrequently. You should be reaching first for Rodale’s.

For you serious geeks there is 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. 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 versifiers. (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. Often, there is none. (You should be looking the words up, anyway, just to be sure.).


The Word Menu: by Stephen Glazier, printed by Random House. This is, after Rodale, the most useful reference book I own. Everyone I know who owns one treasures it. It was out of print for a while then came back into print as a softback. Might be out of print again. But this is an incredibly useful book. It is the world divided up into categories and subcategories, then filled with lists, each term with a brief explanation. It is very useful in finding a term you cannot quite recall (you know it is a driving term, so scan through "Driving and Repair"). The internet has greatly supplanted that use; not completely though. You can't google if you can't even think of what the word means. Also, there is the ability to look up a subject and see a list of terms relating to that subject. It is great for creative writers diving into areas of which they have less than steady feet. An insanely useful book for narrowing in on and discovering terms. And I recognize that is a poor description. This one is worth diving in blind for, though.


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.) It has much more information than Kindersley, but the illustrations are not as detailed. So I have had to check to make sure what I think is a hipschikky is, 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. Note that there are some crappy ones out there. (But, if you 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 writers keep a shelf filled with them. There are an example of why hardcopy still beats online: you can't just sit and read online, you have to look up term after term.


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 verse 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. Of course, with verse, they are invaluable. 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 than 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 versifier, 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. (Get the most recent edition.)

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 risk hair loss (especially with heavily formatted verse). Word’s nonsensical formatting method makes formatting difficult where it should not be, and working with large texts (like novels or collections of poems) near impossible. Need to find all the places you struck out words? A simple search. Need to add a widget to your double paragraph breaks? A simple series of find and replace. I have many times helped acquaintances clean up texts written in Word by translating to Wordperfect, cleaning it up, and translating back. I find it an embarrassment to the literary industry that WP is not openly preferred. But, such is the powers of having a o/s monopoly.

To note, you do not have to buy the most recent version, though the penultimate version added the ability to make e-documents. But, if you do buy a new version, it will last you a long time.

Maevis Beacon Teaches Typing: Hands down, the best $35 I have spent, ever, in my life, ever. If you cannot touch-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 only because it is what I used, and I was very happy with it. There is freeware out there, though I don't know for the quality. Might as well spend money on something formal and know what you are getting. Whichever you do, buy a program; spend the time; learn it; and be happy. It’s that easy.

Dragon Naturally Speaking: Is discontinued. I have no idea at all what is out there now. Apparently it is built in to Windows 10, though I have not tried it out. I haven't used such a program in a very long time. While I was in grad school I used it all the time to dictate texts (things from books or journals) into files. I am not sure I have much need for it anymore, but I thought I would mention it for that research use, or for just translating notes into a file. If you get into using it, you might more and more find it useful.