A Writer’s Bookshelf
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you probably want a shelf (or a bookcase) of reference books. When you love the intricacies of the English language and consider mastering it a lifelong quest, these books guide, entertain, and—occasionally—inspire.

The Basics
Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2011 (
The primary reference for journalists and a handy one for almost any writer, AP’s annual guide stands out for being easy to use and up to date. You can find what you want quickly and understand the answers. I recommend the spiral edition (available from AP) because it lies flat. Or you may prefer one for your mobile device.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (2010;
For all editors and the majority of serious writers, Chicago occupies  prime space. It provides answers you won’t find elsewhere. Most book publishers, and many others, refer to it and use it in writing their own style manuals. If you’re not an editor or an experienced writer, you may find the doorstop-sized Chicago intimidating.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner (a 2009 update of the 2003 edition and the 1998 A Dictionary of Modern American Usage).
This is the best, most comprehensive of the up-to-date books on usage that I’ve reviewed. I don’t feel the affection for it that I do for two classics: Roy H. Copperud’s classic American Usage and Style: The Consensus and Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.
Most publications and publishers use M-W as their standard. You can check the latest preferred spelling—yes, preferences change—at Dictionaries differ, and the more and the bigger you have the better. Do not live by spell checker alone.

Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, second edition, compiled by Christine A. Lindberg, 2008.
Handle any thesaurus with care. It may seduce or distract you. This one is outstanding.

General References
American Slang, 4th edition, edited by Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, 2008.
An abridged edition of Dictionary of American Slang, this book provides useful information on the origins and meanings of thousands of old and new slang terms.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, by Virginia Tufte, 2006.
Better known to academics than writers, Tufte’s book shows how writers use various constructions (e.g., adjectives as sentence openers) to produce special effects. While not exactly light reading, Artful Sentences mixes intellectual pleasure with how-to information on writing as an art and as a craft.

The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide on Writing Well, by Paula LaRocque, 2003.
Written primarily for journalists, this book discusses techniques almost any writer can use.

The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, by Roy Peter Clark, 2010.
Writers and editors will value this more than students do. Clark’s real-world knowledge, right-on examples, and writing skills make this book entertaining enough to go on your bedside table and practical enough to go on your reference shelf.

English Through the Ages, William Brohaugh, 1997.
If you’re writing historical fiction, this is a great guide to when words came into the language. Brohaugh lists words in use by certain years (1150, 1350, 1470, by 1500, etc.) in categories (e.g., animals, food, holidays).

How to Write and Give a Speech, by Joan Detz, 2002.
Writers need this when they go out to promote their books. Another of Joan’s books, Can You Say a Few Words?, contains a chapter on panel presentations that conference organizers may want to make mandatory reading.

Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, by Elizabeth Lyon, 2008.
The title tells all.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse, by Ben Yagoda, 2007.
Fun and informative.

Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, by Rebecca McClanahan, 2000.
The author gives great guidelines on coming up with effective figurative language and integrating description into your story. An excellent resource for both fiction and nonfiction writers.

The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s, by Mark McCutcheon, 1993.
If you’re writing about the 19th century, you open this book frequently.

How-to Books for Mystery Writers
Break into Fiction: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells, by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love, 2009.
The book serves as a workshop on writing fiction. Mary gives superb feedback in her online workshops.

Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A., by Chris Roerden, 2008.
The veteran editor and book doctor warns of common problems and gives examples of solving them. She covered some of the same topics in Don’t Murder Your Mystery.

Forensics and Fiction: Clever, Intriguing, and Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers, by D. P. Lyle, M.D., 2007.
Cardiologist and author Doug Lyle answers mystery writers’ medical and post-death questions, providing both accurate details and ideas for unusual ways to kill characters. His range of knowledge is amazing. He takes questions at

How to Write Killer Fiction: The Funhouse of Mystery & the Roller Coaster of Suspense, by Carolyn Wheat, 2003.
The author spells out the differences in the subgenres and the basics of writing each.

Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents, annual editions.
This annual offers one of the most comprehensive and reliable lists of people who may be interested in your finished manuscript.

Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers, by Lee Lofland, 2007.
A former police officer, Lee shows and tells the basics writers need to know even if writing about amateur sleuths. You also may want to bookmark his site ( and attend his workshops.

Write Away, by Elizabeth George, 2004.
Noted for her literary mysteries, George has thought deeply about writing both as a writer and a teacher and excels in sharing what’s she’s learned. Her extensive pre-writing process won’t appeal to pantsers, but anyone can learn from her discussions of going beyond the basics in developing character, making the most of setting, writing dialogue to meet multiple goals, and, of course, plotting.

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, 2002.
Writers swoon over this agent’s workshops and rave about his advice to put tension on every page. Whether you’re beginning or solidifying your career, you’ll find something useful in the book.

You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts, 1999
The author of the popular Amanda Pepper series covers the big picture and little secrets to writing traditional mysteries.