Recommendations from Lowell Forte about writing tools
Like any skill, you need tools.
Webster’s New Third International Dictionary – This is the one you see the kids bee lugging around. It’s definitive. It’s expensive—about a hundred bucks. It is loaded with most of the ammo you will need for any writing mission.
A good thesaurus. I use Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus and the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Keep in mind that a thesaurus should not be considered a source to find a more impressive word but one that more clearly expresses what you want to say. It’s easy to get caught up in overload mode—like the curlicues added to fancy-up a wrought iron fence—but your goal should be to make a very good but simple gate that lets the reader through to clarity.
Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook – I have the fourteenth edition with a 2001 copyright. It’s a bible of grammar and writing guides that are both helpful and fun. You don’t need a shelf of grammar books. Remember, there are no magic formulas, just some basic rules to understand. It’s how you apply the rules that help you improve you writing. But you should view rules as made of rubber rather than concrete. In writing, rules are for guidance. They point you in the right direction. Hodges does a good job of that.
The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage – This is a great volume to augment Hodges and provides some alternative insights in a straightforward manner. This is one of the books I give to friends.
Write Source 2000 – Patrick Sebranek, Dave Kempter, and Verne Meyer did a masterful job in putting this book together. Mine has a copyright date of 1999, but the nice thing about grammar is good advice stays relevant for a long time, and these guys provide some great advice, aided by the fun illustrations by Chris Krenzke. There is a wonderful section called the “Proofreader’s Guide” that serves as a quick reference source to key rules of grammar and usage. The book also has great information on basic writing skills that will help in building your confidence.
The Elements of Style – Written by William Strunk Jr. and modernized by E.B. White. Your grandparents might have used it during their college days. Penguin Press came out with a hardbound illustrated version in 2005, which is a more pleasant experience to read than the small paperback I lived with in junior college. Perhaps best described as a compendium of good usage, it’s worth reading as a book rather than used just as a resource.
If You Want to Write – By Brenda Ueland. Her book bears an original 1938 copyright date, but her advice and wisdom is timeless, especially the early chapters. Try to find an edition by publisher Graywolf Press (www.graywolfpress.org), with a wonderful introduction by Andrei Codrescu. It’s as if Ms. Ueland is patting you on the shoulder to give you confidence and courage. She’s a wonderful spirit to keep around.
There are other grammar and usage books, but I like these because they offer practical, and therefore, immediately usable advice. You don’t learn to write by accumulating dozens of reference books. You learn to write better through practice, practice, practice.