Help on the Shelf

A former colleague used to refer to writers as “ink-stained wretches” – a phrase I love (and which, in today’s blogged-out world, would probably be updated to “carpal-tunnel-suffering wretches”). To that phrase I would apply one further qualifier: “solitary ink-stained wretches.”

Unless you have the support of a writers’ group or receive feedback in writing classes, there’s often little collegiality going on while you’re writing. Those of you who run your own small businesses know what I mean. But, writers working in corporate offices engage in a solitary pursuit, as well. They just have many more layers of review and approval once they finish their prose.

Where do you get answers when you have questions about your writing? What resources do you turn to? The Internet provides tremendous reference tools for those of us who work on our own. Perhaps you’ll share some of your favorites in the Comments section, and I can post as a resource for everyone.

Why books when the Internet is available at your fingertips?

  1. See carpal tunnel reference above;
  2. Getting up, moving about, stepping away from your computer can get the blood – and your thoughts – moving again; until computers take dictation, it’s the best method endorsed by the advocates of ergonomics to preserve your health and comfort through a long writing career at the computer (and while you’re up, you might try a nice Downward Dog or Uttanasana stretch to really get the blood flowing to your brain);
  3. It gives you a chance to see what’s going on in the world for a few seconds, taking in visual information that doesn’t come from a computer screen, which can also jump-start your thought process.

Today, as I mused on those physical reference tools known as books, I thought I’d share some suggestions:

A dictionary
Yes, I use Merriam-Webster online frequently, and it’s a helpful resource. It probably takes me the same amount of time to launch the online dictionary, type in a word and wait for the site to respond as it does to look up the word in a physical dictionary. The advantage of the book form is that the word you’re hunting for is surrounded by other words. Take a moment to let your eyes wander. When we’re engaged in putting words together to write clearly, input is important. Because writers don’t tend to interact with others when we’re heads-down on a project, we can get bogged down in our own vocabulary. Talking to others – literally hearing their language – or visiting the dictionary, touring page upon page of new words, can expand the known universe of options and word choices, making our writing even better and clearer than before.

A thesaurus
I use a worn, sepia-colored, pocket version of Roget’s that was printed in 1959 and originally sold for 35 cents. Stuck in the past, you say? Possibly. What I love about this edition is the sheer amount of possibilities it includes under each reference. I’m not sure who loaded the thesaurus into Microsoft Word, but it rarely offers more than a few apt options. The 1959 Roget’s can go on for pages about a subject such as attention, or lack thereof. This may sound ridiculous, but the usage in this book seems closer to an original, truer meaning of the English language. The cover of this well-thumbed Roget’s promises that “it will help you to find the words that express your ideas most exactly. It will show you how to use those words according to their precise shades of meaning.” Precisely!

A grammar guide
The Random House Handbook was recommended to me many years ago by one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. I went rummaging through used bookshops until I found an edition, published in 1984. Yes, even over the roar of the Internet, I can hear you laughing about these old books I use as references. I do recognize that language evolves, often rapidly, and for those references, I go online. In this case, the reason I like the older Random House Handbook is that, in updating later editions, the authors managed to make grammar more complicated and the handbook less handy. Grammar is tedious enough for most people – even writers who are often geeks on the subject – I vote for the clarity of the 1984 edition. Grammar Girl’s website is another reference that many like; I find the site hard to view and navigate. So, in book format, I’m happy also to recommend Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s books, including The Transitive Vampire: A Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed (“A book to sink your fangs into,” wrote William Safire when it first appeared) and The Well-Tempered Sentence. Vamps, werewolves and zombies are fairly topical these days, and I’ll invite anyone who can exsanguinate some humor from grammar into my home.

A style guide
Consistency being considered a hallmark of good writing, many corporate communications departments, reporters and writers rely on (or have a love/hate relationship with) The Associated Press Stylebook. This is the book that has taken more than a decade to agree that “website” should be one word, not two, and that “email” is no longer hyphenated. Combine that with a Byzantine system for looking up references that requires the user to have memorized the entire guide anyway, and you’ll understand why the haters. The Chicago Manual of Style is considered a more formal approach, however, the two guides have more in common than not. Since one or the other of these guides is generally required knowledge for even entry-level communications jobs, it’s helpful to have some familiarity with them.

Or “a little sweet” as Natalie Goldberg, author of one of my favorite books on writing, describes it. Goldberg has written a number of books that encourage, advise, instruct, and calm writers, including Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is another miracle in book form. What do these books mean for the writer? I can’t say it any better than my quote of the day below.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on books that have helped you write, guided you or inspired you. If you’re kind enough to share your resources, I’ll create a place to share them here on this blog. Thanks!

Writing that inspired me this week:

“In Judaism there is an old tradition that when a young boy first begins to study, the very first time, after he reads his first word in the Torah, he is given a taste of honey or a sweet. This is so he will always associate learning with sweetness. It should be the same with writing. Right from the beginning, know it is good and pleasant. Don’t battle with it. Make it your friend.”
Natalie GoldbergWriting Down the Bones