Reference Books about Writing

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Do you have a word nerd for a mother? If so, consider getting her another writing book from the following list.

Very few people in the world understand how wonderful it is for word nerds (like me) to pick up The Chicago Manual of Style and read a few pages for fun. I’m not talking about those moments when grabbing it quickly confirms a particular grammar point, although that’s useful too.

I’m speaking about those lazy days when anything is possible and yet somehow the whole day passes by because I chose to sit and read The Chicago Manual of Style for a few minutes. Recently I was reading the section about citing sources, for example and that revealed potential sources for research not previously considered. On page 748, it says:

Command papers are so called because they originate outside Parliament and are ostensibly presented to Parliament “by command of Her [His] Majesty.” The different abbreviations for “command” indicate the series and must not be altered. No s is added to the plural [Cmnd. 3834, 3835].

That made me curious. Turns out that Command Paper 3834 is a book called “Review Body on Armed Forces Pay: 1998, 27th Report by Great Britain, Gordon Hourston (Paperback, 1998).” This exercise made me realize that researching under the term “command papers” in the UK National Archives might lead to detailed policy analyses that are unavailable elsewhere. Awesome lesson!

While the Chicago Manual of Style contains depth beyond its key strength, most writing references are less diverse. Each one meets a precise purpose for a particular situation.

As with many works of notable nonfiction, that purpose depends on whether you’re looking for story, structure or style advice.

I have selections of books to help inspire me about all three challenges, yet there are still a few highly recommended books on my wish list. I’ve listed all of these below to give you an idea about which books cover which topics best. Books with reviews or affiliations links on this blog are hyperlinked to those resources.

Story: Books about Being a Writer

Brown, Rita Mae. Starting From Scratch. A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual. New York: Speakeasy, 1988. ISBN 0-533-34630-X.

Cheney, Theodore A. Rees Writing Creative Nonfiction. Berkeley: Tenspeed Press, 1991. ISBN 0-89815-411-1.

DeBartolo Carmack, Sharon. You Can Write Your Family History.  Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. New edition. Shambhala, 2005.

King, Stephen. On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Shuster Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-671-02425-6.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Nieman Foundation. Telling True Stories. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6.

Pen Canada. Writing Away. Edited by Constance Rooke. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1994. ISBN 0-7710-6956-1.

Structure: Books about Writing Presentation

Best American Essays 2000. Edited by Alan Lightman and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. ISBN 0-618-035580-x.

Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer. Cinncinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1992. ISBN 0-89879-464-1.

Kuriloff, Peshe C. Rethinking Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-312-00274-2.

Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, Writer’s Digest Books; 4 edition (April 18 2011), ISBN: 158297702X.

Law Hatcher, Patricia. Producing a Quality Family History. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.

Moffett, James. Points of Departure. An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: New American Library, 1985. ISBN 9780451627285.

Ross, Raymond S. Essentials of Speech Communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. ISBN 0-13-289173-5.

Sands, Katharine. Making the Perfect Pitch; How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.

Strathcona County Board of Education Communications Handbook. Edited by Paula S. Goepfert. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1982. ISBN 0-17-6015 07-8.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. ISBN 0-941188-70-1.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. ISBN 0-06-272027-9.

Style: Books about the Art of Writing

Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, edited by Christopher W. French et al. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1986. ISBN 0201100916.

Board for Certification of Genealogists Genealogy Standards. Edited by Thomas W. Jones. Washington: Turner Publishing Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-630-26018-7.

Canadian Press Stylebook. Edited by Bob Taylor. Toronto: The Canadian Press, 1986, ISBN 0-920009-01-8.

Canadian Style. Edited by Malcolm Williams and Vitalijs Bucens. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997. ISBN 978-1-55002-882-9.

Carroll, David L. A Manual of Writer’s Tricks. New York: Paragon House, 1990. ISBN 1-55778-314-4.

Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite.  New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Coles Handbook of English Grammar and Composition. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company Limited, 1980.

Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Hart, Jack. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction Paperback, University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (Oct. 12 2012), ISBN 0226318168.

Kleinschmit, Nathalie. Borderless English. Manitoba: Global’ease, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9783825-06.

Mahan, Margaret D. F. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2003, ISBN 0-226-10403-6.

Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010.

Shown Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Revised edition.  Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.

Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1999.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. ISBN 1861976127.

Venolia, Jan. Write Right. A Canadian Desk-Drawer Digest of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. North Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1983. ISBN 088908-554-4.

Weber Shaw, Fran. 30 Ways to Help You Write. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1980, ISBN 0-553-24073-0.

If you’re new to writing, or if you’ve never used books to inspire you to improve you skill, you might consider judging the “sound” of these books to select those that might appeal to you.

Use Sound to Select Your Top Three

When I say sound, I’m referring to how we hear books in our head as we read them. Readers are used to judging poetry by sound, which encompasses mood, rhythm and tone, but they often forget that other books have the same qualities.

Authors change the sound of a book by playing around with how they present their work. Narrative voice, word play and book chapter and sentence structure encompass the mood of a work, whether argumentative, playful, intense, or light. The layout of a written text captures rhythm and reflects whether an author wants readers to quickly skip over sentences or pause and meander through them slowly. Prose style captures the tone of a work. Long words, sentences and paragraphs encourage deep thought while short precise sentences present a conclusion as though already formed in a reader’s mind. Is a work divided into small bite-sized chunks that encourage a reader to read sections separately whenever encouragement is needed or do sentences run together so that it’s difficult to put a book down? Do chapters end on cliff hangers that keep readers engrossed or do they end at clear conclusions that allow readers to stop and think for a while?

Think about sound when judging whether a book will inspire you to keep learning. Each person has a different style of learning and might benefit from a book that takes that style into account.

As an intense responsibility-driven person, for instance, my top three writing references are: Telling True Stories for story, Points of Departure for structure and the Chicago Manual of Style. I like how each of these guides is divided into sections so that I can refer to specifics quickly. Despite that overall ease of use, each miniscule section of each of these books is full of detailed content presented in a comprehensive fashion that encourages me to think deeply about the points they make.

As a Canadian, I also reference the Canadian Press Stylebook frequently. Rules in Canada sometimes match American rules, while at other times we use British rules. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which was first published in 1940, helps me keep the exceptions to Chicago straight.

Anyone who wants to write well will want to refer to the three North American standards: On Writing by Stephen King, On Writing Well  by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Each of these is well-divided, detailed and mildly entertaining. Together, they form an ideal writing course.

People who want to study writing deeply will want to pick up Writing Creative Nonfiction for story, The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler for structure and Genealogy Standards for style. All of these books assume a well-grounded understanding of the basics and encourage writers to improve their craft at an intermediate or advanced level.

People who prefer entertainment in their reference books would probably enjoy Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown, Dare to be a Great Writer by Leonard Bishop and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. All of these books are tons of fun to read, and their authors don’t take themselves too seriously.

Obsessive writers like me own all thirteen of the above books, plus a great many more. We are the word nerds.

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