Top 10 Reference Works for Writers and Editors

Despite the ready availability of spell checkers, grammar software, and online dictionaries and style guides, every serious writer still needs a few good reference books. Yes, these are all "look it up" books, as we used to call them when we were kids. But most are also delightful works to browse through and occasionally get lost in.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition (2016)

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

This 2,100-page heavyweight should serve you well for a generation or two. In addition to the customary definitions, word histories, examples, and quotations, The American Heritage Dictionary offers advice on matters of usage and style—courtesy of its "renowned" (and still controversial) Usage Panel. For the budget-minded, a close second choice in the dictionary category is the shorter and less costly Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

Alternative text for British writers: Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd ed., edited by Soanes and Stevenson (2010).

Garner's Modern English Usage, 4th edition (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Garner's Modern English Usage
(Oxford University Press)

Since the appearance of the first edition in 1998, Garner's Modern English Usage has become the standard guide for American writers and editors. Its most distinctive feature, said novelist David Foster Wallace, is that "its author is willing to acknowledge that a usage dictionary is not a bible or even a textbook but rather just the record of one smart person's attempts to work out answers to certain very difficult questions." That "one smart person" is lawyer and lexicographer Bryan A. Garner. Clearly and wittily, Garner leavens his prescriptive approach, as he says, "by a thorough canvassing of actual usage in modern edited prose."

Alternative text for British writers: New Oxford Style Manual, 2nd ed., edited by Robert Ritter (2012).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Among U.S. book publishers, The Chicago Manual of Style is the most widely used guide to style, editing, and design. Running close to 1,000 pages, it's also the most comprehensive. (In addition, an online version is available by subscription.) However, this durable guide (the first edition appeared in 1906) faces competition from more specialized reference works, such as the AP Stylebook (see below); The Gregg Reference Manual (for business professionals); American Medical Association Manual of Style; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association; and the MLA Style Manual (used by writers in the humanities). But if your profession doesn't have its own style guide, go with Chicago.

AP Stylebook

AP Stylebook 2015

Known as "the journalist's bible," the AP Stylebook (revised annually) contains over 5,000 entries on matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. When you have questions that other reference books ignore, go to the AP Stylebook: chances are good that the answers are here.

Alternative text for British writers: The Economist Style Guide, 11th edition (2015).

The Business Writer's Handbook, 11th edition (Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2015)

(Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015)

Despite the title, this reference work by Gerald Alred, Walter Oliu, and Charles Brusaw should be helpful to all writers, not just those in the business world. The alphabetically arranged entries cover matters ranging from the finer points of grammar and usage to conventional formats for articles, letters, reports, and proposals. This is one of the very few textbooks that smart students hold on to and actually use long after they graduate.

The Copyeditor's Handbook, 3rd edition (University of California Press, 2011)

(University of California Press, 2011)

Once you've settled on an editorial style manual (such as the AP Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style), consider supplementing it with Amy Einsohn's smart and practical handbook, subtitled "A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications." Targeting "new and aspiring copyeditors who will be working on nonfiction books, journal articles, letters, and corporate publications," The Copyeditor's Handbook is both a lucid textbook and a straightforward reference tool.

Alternative text for British writers and editors: Butcher's Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, by Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake, and Maureen Leach (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition (HarperCollins, 2006)

(Harper Perennial, 2006)

This self-described "classic guide to writing nonfiction" by William K. Zinsser actually lives up to its publisher's claims: "Praised for its sound advice, its clarity, and its warmth of style, . . . it is a book for anybody who wants to learn how to write, whether about people or places, science and technology, business, sports, the arts, or about yourself."

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th edition (Pearson, 2016)

Style Lessons in Clarity
(Pearson 2016)

Yes, Strunk and White's Elements of Style remains extremely popular. And when it comes to writing about style with style, E. B. White really can't be beat. But his expanded version of Professor Strunk's 1918 writing guide strikes many contemporary readers as skimpy and somewhat dated. In contrast, the latest edition of Style by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup (Pearson, 2016), is more thorough, contemporary, and helpful.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd edition (2003)

(Cambridge University Press, 2003)

The general reader who wants to learn more about the English language--its history, vocabulary, and grammar—will find no text more enjoyable and enlightening than this illustrated study by linguist David Crystal. Unlike the other works listed here, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language offers a descriptive study of English--no usage rules or stylistic advice, just clear explanations of how the language works.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, 2nd ed. (2012)

(Morgan Kaufmann, 2012)
If you write for a blog or website, you might want to move this book to the top of your list. Easy to read and use, Letting Go of the Words is a helpful companion to a conventional style guide. Janice (Ginny) Redish focuses on responding to the needs (and short attention spans) of online readers. Another helpful guide in this category is The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010).