As a copy editor, I frequently talk with people about the reference books they use when writing. Oftentimes, the books mentioned are outdated or insufficient. If you’re interested in updating or expanding your reference library, here are three types of books every writer should own: a style guide, a dictionary, and a grammar manual.
(Yes, I am being a bit dramatic when I say every writer. Obviously, everyone has different writing requirements and goals, so your needs may vary. However, “Three Books Most Writers Should Own” seemed like a less effective title.)
1. A Style Guide
Style guides, also called style manuals, explain how to format writing consistently within specific fields, genres, or industries. So, the style guide that you choose should depend on the nature of your writing.
Style guides cover issues such as citing sources, capitalizing titles and headings, structuring tables and figures, and writing numbers as words or numerals. Most style guides also provide recommendations for grammar and punctuation.
Here are three of the most popular style guides along with a brief explanation of each guide’s target audience.
The Chicago Manual of Style
The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago, is the most popular style guide in the publishing industry, so it should be the first choice for fiction and nonfiction writers interested in traditional publishing.
As the most comprehensive option, I believe it is also the best choice for general business writing.
The Chicago Manual of Style, which is referred to as both CMOS and Chicago style, is available as a hardcover and through an online subscription.
The Associated Press Stylebook
The Associated Press Stylebook, published annually by the Associated Press, is the primary style guide for the journalism industry. Consider adopting The Associated Press Stylebook if your writing is news-centric or journalistic in tone.
The Associated Press Stylebook is available as a spiral-bound paperback and through an online subscription. In addition, the Hachette Book Group publishes a bound paperback version every other year.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
The sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, commonly called APA style, is structured for academic writing and research in the social and behavioral sciences. Therefore, APA style is a solid choice for writers in those fields.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Visit “Which Style Guide Is Best for You?” for more information on these and other style guides.
2. A Dictionary
Each of the style guides discussed above recommends a specific dictionary. In American English, the two primary options are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Let’s look at both options along with a worthy mention.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, is recommended by Chicago style and APA style. It is available as a hardcover and as an e-book.
You can also subscribe to Merriam-Webster online, which includes access to the unabridged and collegiate versions as well as a collegiate thesaurus, concise encyclopedia, medical dictionary, Spanish–English dictionary, and French–English Dictionary.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary
AP style recommends Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition. It is available as a hardcover and digitally as a paid add-on to the AP style online subscription.
Worthy Mention: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
None of our primary style guides recommend the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; however, it is still a valuable dictionary to own because it is (in my opinion) nearly as comprehensive as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and more comprehensive than Webster’s New World College Dictionary.
Note that the paperback titled The American Heritage Dictionary is a condensed version, not the complete version.
Visit “Which Dictionary Is Best for You?” for more information on these titles along with a discussion on pocket dictionaries.
3. A Grammar Manual…or Three
Good grammar manuals generally take a deeper dive into the mechanics of grammar than do style guides. Unfortunately, the market is flooded with not-so-good options, so buyer beware.
Here are three exceptional grammar manuals that can complement Chicago style, AP style, and APA style.
The Gregg Reference Manual
The Gregg Reference Manual, Eleventh Tribute Edition, by William Sabin, is a must-have source because it covers just about every grammar issue a writer or editor could encounter in a straightforward manner complete with real-world examples. The only downside of The Gregg Reference Manual is that it occasionally deviates from our primary style guides on issues of style, such as number formatting, so always cross-reference your style guide on important issues.
The Gregg Reference Manual is available as a spiral-bound book and as an e-book.
The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation
The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, by Bryan A. Garner, is based on Chicago style; however, its thoroughness makes it an invaluable addition to any writing library regardless of your chosen style guide. This book’s only drawback is that it doesn’t offer as many real-world examples as The Gregg Reference Manual does.
The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation is available as a hardcover and as an e-book.
Garner’s Modern English Usage
Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition, also by Bryan A. Garner, is the big cheese of grammar manuals. Not only is it physically big, but the depth of its content is gigantic. If you write or edit professionally, this manual is a must. Period.
However, it can be overwhelming, so those who only write occasionally may want to consider the two previous options before delving into this one.
Garner’s Modern English Usage is available as a hardcover and as an e-book. It is also available as an app for Androids and iPhones.
This post is not sponsored. The external links to the books mentioned are provided for your convenience.