Life hackers love to empty their pockets, bags, and packs and show off their gear. Freelance writers have their own version of every day carry: the essential reference works that, collectively, are the writerly equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife or a Leatherman tool.
Even in this era of instant electronic reference, I still rely on these books — not just because I know them so well, but also because they remain consistently and authoritatively accurate.
And quite a few of them are fun to read, too.
Here’s a list of my “every day reference.” Some of these may surprise you.
The reference books on my desk fall into two general categories: writing reference and style guides. I’ll take them in turn.
- Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Second Edition
Never be at a loss for words again. The innovative Concept Index at the back, which groups words according to related themes ranging from Actions to Weights and Measures, sets this thesauraus apart.
- Strunk & White, The Elements of Style
As if any explanation is necessary.
- Hopper, Gale, Foote, and Griffith, Essentials of English, Fifth Edition
The unsung essential companion to Strunk & White. Covers everything from words, sentences, and punctuation through logic , emphasis, and technique in one slim volume.
- Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
Okay, I know. It’s as old as I am. My uncle used it in college and passed it down through the family before it ended up with me. But as long as the definition of words like Finnish, tinker’s damn, and monition don’t change, this dictionary will still be useful.
Sometimes, it’s about more than just looking up words.
- The Random House Compact World Atlas
Funny thing about atlases: they last longer than you’d expect. Countries and borders may change, but major cities (for the most part), heights above sea level, major air and sea routes, and time zones remain the same. An atlas is a great place to find all that info in one place — not to mention the index, which goes from Aachen to Zyyi.
- The Chicago Manual of Style
Of course. But only the 13th edition. I admit to being a bit of an unreasonable snob about it; the biggest turnoff about the 14th edition was the lousy paper they used, the horribly narrow margins, and the unreadably tiny fonts. Oh, and I disagreed with their new citation style for electronic sources.
I probably need to get over all that, especially since the recent 15th edition didn’t cause any uproar that I know of. Even so, for 95% of what I need it for, the 13th is still up-to-date — plus it’s composed in Linotron Times Roman, printed on Warren’s 1854 Cream Regular text stock, and bound in Holliston Roxite Linen with Permacolor Smoke endsheets.
This book, in other words, practices what it preaches.
- The Economist Style Guide, Ninth Edition
The dry-witted, scholarly headmaster of usage. “Do not feel obliged to follow American fashion in overusing such words as rhetoric (of which there is too little, not too much),” it counsels. And, like a true gentleman, it can be decorously self-deprecating: the entry on metaphors (which begins by quoting Orwell) mines the pages of The Economist itself for abundant examples. “Some of these are tired, and will therefore tire the reader,” the editors write. “Most are so exhausted that they may be considered dead, and are therefore permissible.”
- The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law
Still the standard companion to Chicago, probably the best single quick-reference source for spelling and correct usage. But it has no discernable humor, and is therefore much less fun to consult than the Economist.
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition
From the people who brought you the author-date citation. I do a lot of work for scientists, who prefer APA for in-text citations and bibliographies. So I need to speak their language. Plus it has some valuable information on how to present statistical info and reduce bias, which are good lessons for any kind of technical writing.
So, what’s on your reference shelf? And why?