Five Essential Books for Writers

I recently finished a book for a client. It was a bit of a lift, but worth it. It’s always so satisfying to watch a book of history come to life, to take material that makes your eyes glaze transform and tell a story on the page.

The author gave me a compliment I cherish. “You didn’t just teach me about the publishing process, you taught me how to write.”

What an amazing thing to hear. I’m so grateful for those before me who taught me how to write — and still do every day. Great editors and publishers who coached, and guided, and red-lined my work, all with the idea of communicating ideas clearly via the page. So, thanks for that.

None of us finish a journalism school or a creative writing MFA ready to publish a bestseller — fiction or non-fiction. Good writers keep learning, keep reading, and keep revising. Words and ideas need tuning up all the time. Need some mechanical help? Here are my five favorite — and most used —  books on writing you may want to make sure live in your tool box.

1. Strunk and White Elements of Style, 4th Ed: This book is a classic for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that it works!  Strunk and White remains a staple for writers helping both beginners and professionals understand the basics of grammar and style.

2. Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition —  The “ChiMan” as I learned to call it remains my single most used reference book, especially when I’m working with authors on manuscript preparation. In addition to the usual style guidelines for everything from numbered lists to citations, it describes the elements of a book and how to handle each one. It’s a one-stop-shop for authors and editors alike when it comes to building books.

3. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style — This relatively new reference from Random House’ copy chief Benjamin Dreyer is a fun and useful read. (Who reads reference books beginning to end?  Well, I do when they’re this fun.) For new writers, you’ll find a treasure trove of good advice and candid speaking. For experienced writers and editors, this book feels like having a friendly editor correct your work. It’s a great way to tune up common problems that even experienced writers encounter. And he gives you permission to break a few rules.

4. Recipe Writer’s Handbook, Rev Edition — If you write about food, you need to own this book. How do you construct a recipe in a standard format? Find a name for it? Avoid plagiarism?  Veteran cookbook editors Barbara Ostmann (an early pioneer in the field) and Jane Baker walk recipe writers, cook book editors, and even food bloggers through how to create recipes that give clear instructions to readers. As a reference and style guide the book includes everything from standard package sizes to generic terms for name brand products.

5. Your Choice of Style Guide. OK, this isn’t technically one book but it’s important you know that regardless of your project, you need to identify the appropriate style guide.  The Associated Press Style Book (commonly called AP Style) is the go-to for newspapers, reporters and news writers.  APA Styles is a go-to for academic research, peer-reviewed papers, and scholarly books. The key is that you know that are several different styles and confirm with your editor which one your should use. It’s especially important if you have to prepare references or citations.  Keep in mind that most style guides issue updates over time so ensure you’re using an up-to-date edition.

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