Are you a word nerd? If so, consider getting a writing reference book from the following list and support your passion and my work at the same time.
If you choose to buy one of these books through my affiliate links, I get a few cents although you don’t pay any additional fee.
Then we can both sit back and explore the world of nonfiction. Very few people in the world understand how wonderful it is for word nerds to pick up a good writing reference guide 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. No, instead 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.
In addition to thinking about language and getting tips to improve your craft, writing reference guides can trigger new research ideas.
Research Ideas Triggered
Once while reading the section about citing sources, for example, I discovered a new potential source for research. 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. Cincinnati: 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; 4th 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, ISBN 0-02-418200-1.
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 your craft, 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 also change how quickly they want readers to read by playing around with how they present their work.
Narrative voice, wordplay 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 and slow reading, 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? Do quick sentences make it difficult to put a book down? Do chapters end on cliffhangers that keep readers wanting more or do they end at clear conclusions to encourage readers to think?
Thinking about sound when judging a book can help readers understand what a writer wants to project.
Choose the Top Three for Your Writer Type
Most writers fit into a particular type: reporter, researcher or storyteller. All writers have characteristics from each type, but your key tendencies determine your type. In brief, reporters focus on events and news; researchers love information-gathering and storytellers create narratives easily.
Take my family history quiz to find out which type of writer you are and then get the ideal books to help you with story, structure and style.
If you’re a reporter, you’ll appreciate
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within to help you with story development,
- On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction for ideas about structure, and
- The Elements of Style, as a guide to style.
If you’re a researcher, I’d suggest:
- Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life,
- Points of Departure, and the
- Chicago Manual of Style.
If you’re a storyteller, you’ll probably like:
- On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft for story ideas,
- The Writer’s Journey for structure assistance, and
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves for help with style.
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.
If you’re a family history writer, you need Genealogy Standards for style.
Obsessive writers like me own all thirteen of the above books, plus a great many more. We are the word nerds.