Feb 10, 2010

A writer's working library?

A carpenter needs tools. A surgeon needs tools. What tools does a writer need? Among others, he needs books as resources.

My purpose here is to identify the kinds of books a frequent or full-time writer might accumulate. I offer examples from my bookshelves; I have not performed a systematic survey of the books available today in each category.

First, a general-purpose, unabridged dictionary is indispensable for me. Online dictionaries can be helpful for quick reference to common, customary usages of terms. I prefer a book because I can mark it up. Using a fine-line black pen, I encircle each word I study. I underline to highlight one meaning or word-origin among many. I write comments in the margins. Thus, as the decades pass, I accumulate knowledge in the form of notes in the dictionary itself. If I return to a word years later I can read my earlier notes and use them as an advanced starting point.

The dictionary I use is the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 2nd edition. It offers primary, secondary, and less common usages of English words; and it presents a brief history of each word, including its Latin, Greek or other origin. This large-format book (about four inches thick, and nine by twelve on the face) also includes: maps; tables of weights and measures; translation mini-dictionaries for several European languages; a list of commonly confused words (e.g., "ambiguous" and "ambivalent"); and many other features. I keep it open on a stand next to my desk.[1]

The style manual I generally follow is The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. It has 900 pages packed with detailed information about the process of developing a manuscript; writing style (for example, when to write "18" or "eighteen"); and production of a book (design, printing, binding). An example section is 6.19, "Possessives, General Rules." In some sections, the manual's authors discuss alternative systems of style but emphasize the system that The University of Chicago Press prefers. I support many of their recommendations, but not all of them. Their discussions allow me to make an informed decision.

Other aids for developing the sort of style I want (objective, clear, concise, and readable) are works -- from most concise to most explanatory -- such as William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style; Rudolph Flesch, The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English; and Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. These stylists do not always agree with each other. Good. Each presents reasons for his view, allowing the reader to decide for himself in each application. Bernstein in particular is helpful in distinguishing meanings, for example, distinguishing "annihilate" (destroy completely) and "decimate" (destroy one-tenth).

The premier guide to the writing process is Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. It deserves slow, careful study. It covers big issues, for example, when to use the conscious mind and when the subconscious (for example, Chs. 5 and 6), as well as narrower issues, such as rhythm in writing (p. 134), the writing of book reviews (p. 145), and the error of editing unwritten sentences (p. 73).

I also use a variety of specialized resources to help me achieve my central purpose in life, which is telling success stories from history. For the beginner, Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 2nd ed., covers every phase of researching and writing history.

I love histories that cover vast subjects. I focus on the history of philosophy and its primitive predecessor, religion. I have used W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, hundreds of times. For instance, it has a full page on "Faith" offering 16 entries chronologically arranged, from the 1st Century Christian apostle Paul to the 20th Century philosopher-theologian Frederick R. Tennant.

Last is a category for amusement as well as education: myth-busters. Tom Burnam, The Dictionary of Misinformation, sets the record straight on such items as the often-quoted sentence, "Brevity is the soul of wit," from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Burnam explains that "wit" is short for "witan," which meant "knowledge" to Shakespeare.

What additional tools for writers would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] In his lecture series, Principles of Grammar, Dr. Peikoff offers advice on selecting a general-purpose dictionary.


Lady Baker said...

Wow, I'd love to get a look at that dictionary some day! :)

How about a thesaurus? Sometimes I find I'm looking for the right word and just need a different nuance.

Rachel Miner

Burgess Laughlin said...

My unabridged dictionary includes, near the end of each entry, a list of synonyms. For "debate," synonyms listed include "disputation" and "contention," among others. I would need to look up each if I were trying to determine shades of meaning.

The advantage of a thesaurus would be that, if it is a large one, it would in one place give you a comparison of similar but distinguishable meanings.

I threw my thesaurus away.

Bill Brown said...

As a more specialized version of a thesaurus, I'd recommend a synonym dictionary. It has entries exploring the differences between synonyms in a way that lends itself to greater precision.

For example, debate is a conventional, thesaurus-like entry. Further down the page, "debt" is where these books really shine.

Roberto Brian Sarrionandia said...

Personally, as so much of my writing covers current affairs - which can often mean analysing the miserable, the misguided, the evil and the senseless - I cannot contemplate writing without inspiration on hand. Hugo's Les Miserables, and the latter half of Rand's Anthem are my sources. Both are, to me, the pinnacle of the uplifting - though I know much of them by memory, seeing the words printed on the page is indispensable.

Even when analysing the worst things in the world, literature of the romantic genre without fail inspires me to keep the text useful: as a sort of proud weapon against the very subject it covers, rather than a feeble "woe is me."

-Roberto Sarrionandia
The Prometheus Initiative

Amy said...

The Art of Fiction is within easy reach for me, since I'm working on a novel.

I find "Elements of Style" to be very cumbersome. I never know what section to look in. Even on-line (http://www.bartleby.com/141/), I have trouble with it. Is it easy to find the answer to your questions in the "Chicago?"

Burgess Laughlin said...

1. Indeed, The Art of Fiction is also well worth close study by nonfiction writers as well. E.g., the sections on slang (p. 158) and obscenities (p. 160) have been useful to me.

2. For most frequent or full-time writers, I would recommend using The Elements of Style or similar books in two ways:

a. Read through the book slowly, perhaps a page or two per day, underlining or otherwise noting the problems that you usually encounter. E.g., some writers have trouble with possessives.

b. After working on a writing project, and developing a moderately polished draft, reread TES (or at least skim one's earlier notes written in the book). Next edit your current draft again with those particular pointers in mind.

An example is section 17 of my 3rd edition copy of TES: "Omit Needless Words." The authors suggest, for instance, replacing verbose phrases such as there is no doubt but that with doubtless.

Haviing reprogrammed my subconscious with suggestions like that, my next round of editing a current manuscript will be more productive. (On very large projects, I often go through six or eight edit cycles, each time looking for a different sort of problem or set of problems.)

After practice, the writer gradually automatizes the key points.

3. The Chicago Manual of Style is at first difficult to use. However once I figured out the numbering system and invested time into examining the Table of Contents and the Index as tools, then finding items became much easier.

Suggestion: Tape a little tab, with a key word, on pages you are likely to visit again. For me, an example is the section on possessives. Until I finally understood what to do, as a rule, I had to repeatedly refer to the section on possessives as a rote guide.

Writing can at times be agonizing, as Ayn Rand notes in The Art of Nonfiction, but in the long-term it can be very fulfilling.

Amy said...

That seems like excellent advice. I will do just that with "Elements."

Burgess Laughlin said...

I applaud anyone who makes a serious, sustained effort to become a fiction writer. It is, I think, the most difficult career: