Books, writers, words, and competencies

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Oxford English DictionaryI have always believed that any good, competent and credible writer can be judged (if judge people we must, and yet we do) by the books on his or her desk. Yes, books: printed hardcopy, paper and ink. I’ll go into why books are vastly superior to online sources a bit later (although I suspect my readers already know why…).

Although I am no longer in the media or much of an active writer these days, I believe I can still determine the craft, the credibility and dedication of a writer simply by a quick glance at their library. That’s because good writers have a library to which they refer. Words, and words about words, matter to them.

For a writer or editor not to be passionate about words, not to continue to read and learn about them, not to to delight in them, is like an architect not to be passionate about wood and steel. Or a musician not to be passionate about the materials of which the instrument is constructed. A cook not to be passionate about the ingredients that make up the dish. Good writers care about words. This is true whether the writer be in advertising, technical writing, PR, journalism, a blogger, a poet or a novelist.

And it’s not just words by themselves, but how they play together, how they glide or grate, how they tangle or spin. Good writers also care about grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Even the typefaces matter. If these things don’t, matter, to paraphrase Truman Capote, they’re not writers, just typists.

There are four essential books every writer and editor needs on a desk, or at least within reach: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, and a usage guide. Anyone’s claim to be a writer or journalist without these is suspect. However, which ones they chose is also important to consider.

But before I look into these categories, let me explain about books vs. online sources, and why books are superior. And this advice applies not only to people who write for a living, but to bloggers, aspiring novelists, academics working on dissertaions – anyone who writes regularly or for pleasure.

Elements of JournalismBooks offer what I call peripheral learning. When you look up a word in a dictionary or thesaurus, your eye skims over many other words outside the target definition. Whether you consciously examine these, your brain records them and will remember at least some, even if the definition is not retained. They may be recalled in other associations or when crafting other documents.

It’s almost impossible not to encounter the peripheral effect when you read a book. It’s the same effect you get when you go to a bookstore and look at the shelves: you see the names of other authors and titles of different books aside from the one you’re searching for. The result is that you learn more, you expand your horizons further.

And, if you’re serious about words, you will not simply skim past the extras; you will slow down and read them. Not just in dictionaries, but in style and usage guides, because good writers never stop learning.

When you look up a word online, for example on lexico.com or on dictionary.com, you are shown a single word. You don’t see words around it, so you don’t get that peripheral learning books offer. But when I look up malfeasance in my Compact OED, I find it on a page between malevolent and malformation, near Malagasy, malapropism, malice, malediction, malarkey and other words. On the facing page, I see mammary, malodorous, Malthusian, maltose and mallee. Sixty-eight words on the two pages. Many of which are scanned and, at least temporarily, seen and remembered.

Sure, online sites may include boxes with “like” words or other data, but keep in mind the main goal on most sites is to make money. You’ll too often see distracting advertising for other sites (clickbait) or products snuggled up beside the text. You won’t get this in a book.

Many sites like dictionary.com are not the actual sources for the word’s definition, but cull them from other sites and sources, many (most? all?) without paying the actual creators and lexicographers for their work.  Some use outdated dictionaries as their main source (thefreedictionary cites among its sources the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, for example), Others, like urbandictionary.com and wikitionary, allow users to post their own definitions or edit others, which permits incorrect or even fake definitions to be recorded (also a problem with Wikipediea and most of the quotation sites, but that’s another post).

And while these sites offer a definition, not all include the other bits that a proper dictionary has: pronunciation, etymology, source quotations, Latin or Greek roots, date of first use, noun or verb form,  and so on.

If you must use an online site – I understand how convenience, deadlines and the ubiquity of connected devices may affect your decision – then I recommend a credible and original source for definitions such as the Oxford, Cambridge, Collins or Merriam-Webster online dictionaries. These are from the actual lexicographers, the publishers of dictionaries, not the harvesters. See below for a list of credible dictionary publishers (note that the Oxford site requires a subscription, but it offers access to more than 600,000 words!).

Books cannot be hacked. They are independent of internet failures, poor cell coverage, bad wifi, and they cannot be rewritten like Wikipedia is (and is often rewritten, making many entries suspect). They don’t depend on electricity, server uptime or connection speed. Plus they are a tangible asset you can hold, carry and share, not just a virtual entity. 

Books have a gravitas that online sites simply cannot compete with. What sort of dignity does a site have when the definition is juxtaposed with a clickbait ad about “shocking” photos of aging celebrities or for some magical healing diet aimed at emptying your wallet? What heft does a digital explanation hold?

Studies have shown people learn and remember more from reading books than from online content. And books are better to read in bed or in a comfortable chair. So here are my recommendations for essential books every writer should have nearby.

First: a writer needs a good dictionary; not only for the definitions, but for etymologies, examples, spelling (and variations), and pronunciations.

While I realize there are likely few people who read a dictionary at random just for the pleasure of finding new words, it is (for me, at least) an enjoyable and educational practice (most recently I was reading a selection from the 1755 Samuel Johnson dictionary), although I admit to doing it less since I retired. Too bad, because it’s a good habit to have.

For general dictionaries, there are only a small number of credible publishers. Those generic “Webster’s” (or which lack even that identifier) dictionaries one finds in bins in box-store back-to-school bins are not credible – they are usually out-of-date reprints from decades back. A dictionary should come from a reputable publisher, not a reprint. Since our language changes and evolves, so do dictionaries; you also want a recent edition, preferably within the past decade or two at the most. And there’s nothing aside from shelf space to stop you from owning more than one (an American and an English dictionary are both worth owning).

Top of the list is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), preferably the third edition (2010). However, it’s acceptable to choose the Concise edition (12th edition, 2011) or even the Canadian Oxford (second edition, 2005). There’s also a shorter Compact OED (3rd edition, 2009) but to me, it’s more of a bedside dictionary than a working writer’s one. Go for the Concise if you have to pick one; it’s the best mix of comprehensiveness and price. If you have the money, splurge and get the big two-volume Shorter edition (6th edn., 2010). I’d avoid the travel-sized or pocket editions because they have fewer entries.

There is an Oxford American dictionary, but if you write mostly for Americans, I recommend the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate (11th edition, 2003) or the Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th edition, 2014). Also good is the full (and physically much larger) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD, 5th edition, 2011).

Note that any bargain dictionary that has Webster’s in the title alone is not in the same category as, say, the Merriam Webster’s. I recall when I was first appointed editor of the Enterprise-Bulletin, my first act was to replace the ancient family-bible-sized “Webster’s” with a smaller, up-to-date OED. The shelf space freed by that alone allowed me to bring in other reference books for the newsroom.

There are other credible dictionary publishers, including Chambers, Collins (both with editions from 2014), Longman, Cambridge and Macmillan. However, if you have room for just one, I recommend the OED Concise. Chambers is, however, interesting in that it contains many Scottish words, including slang.

There are many specialty dictionaries, too, that deal with technical terms, regional terms, hobby and recreational terms, and so on: you should consider these if that’s your audience. For the media, however, it’s always handy to have a recent dictionary of legal and political terms, including the bureaucracy’s alphabet soup of acronyms.

Second: A thesaurus, for the synonyms and antonyms of words (and sometimes homonyms). Writers know that using the same word too many times dulls the reader’s senses, so a thesaurus offers alternatives. One can overdo it, of course. I recall one writer at the EB opening his film review with the words, “The peripatetic and loquacious director…” which was a bit too florid for a small-town audience. It might have won a Bulwer-Lytton prize, however.

The popular Roget’s thesaurus is a bit like the generic Webster’s dictionary. The name isn’t trademarked in the US, but it is in the UK, so don’t just buy one of those box-store bargain books just because it has Roget’s on the cover. Oxford, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Collins, New American, and Macmillan all publish credible versions, so again make sure you get one from a reputable publisher.

Try to avoid those combined dictionary-thesaurus hybrids: they have fewer words in both parts than stand-alone editions. When it comes to looking for words, more is better.

Like dictionaries, there are specialty thesauri available if you have that audience to consider.

Three: A usage guide explains when to use less or fewer, when to use compare to or compare with, when to hyphenate or merge words, whether a noun takes a singular or plural verb, whether it’s between you and I or you and me, and so on. It also explains when you can use a plural, gender-neutral pronoun like they for a singular subject.

Usage also changes and evolves, so it’s important to have a fairly recent version, and many of the publishers supplement their hardcopy between editions with blog posts about ongoing changes and controversies. Usage guides are not simply grammar textbooks: they assume you already know the basics.

There are some small but important differences between American and English usage, and Canadian writers need to decide which works best for their audiences. I always tip my hat to the English usage, but it’s easy for Canadians to mix them up, being so close to the elephantine American influence (and the annoying default in software to American spelling and usage). If you write for both audiences, you might want to have a usage guide for each.

While there are many usage guides, my choice falls on Fowler’s (or properly, as it was first published, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.) It’s currently in its 4th edition (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield, 2015) but the 3rd edition (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. by Robert Burchfield, 2004) is also very good. I would avoid earlier editions because of their age (the first edition was published in 1926 and is still in print). There is a good abbreviated 4th edition for travel or reading while you wait in medical offices (Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage, ed. by Robert Allen, 2nd edn., 2008).

Fowler promoted a crisp, clear and concise writing style much as did William Strunk Jr. (see below) and Rudolf Flesch. Other usage guides are also published by the same dictionary publishers, listed above. Again, avoid bargain editions because of age and questionable comprehensiveness.

No usage guide is without controversy or challenge because the prescriptivist and descriptivist authors will always spat over how the language should be used. I recommend looking at the various blogs on language to see how these play out.  And just to confuse things, there are some books that combine a usage guide with a style guide (see below).

There are many non-scholarly books on the language that are entertaining and informative, such as the delightful Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer, 2019, as well as those that focus on specific areas like punctuation, spelling or grammar. I have a bookshelf full of such titles, and recommend them to any writer who cares about words, but if shelf space is limited, settle on Fowler’s.

Four: A style guide. This is a bit tricky for salaried writers because any credible publication, media company, every PR firm, and advertising corporation, already has an in-house style, or has adopted an existing style guide from another source. A style guide generally different from a usage guide by being about how text is presented and formatted: margin widths, headline sizes, use of fractions, bullets and numbered lists, image sizing and resolution, use of honorifics and titles, citing sources, footnotes and endnotes; all the details about how a document looks. Writers may not use this guide as much as editors will, but writers will benefit, regardless.

For most Canadian media, it is likely the CP (Canadian Press) Stylebook (18th edn., 2018) in use. However, some (less patriotic?) Canadian outlets use the AP (American Press) guide (2019 edn.) which has USA-specific spelling and media law in it. There is also the Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing from Public Works and Government Services Canada Translation Bureau, 1997, but it is not media-specific.

The Globe & Mail has its own style guide, last published in 2003, and there are other major publications that also have their own (New York Times, The Economist, Washington Post, the Guardian, etc.). While these are excellent guides, they may include media-specific choices, such as the use of honorifics, that not all publications subscribe to. They may also address journalistic ethics and integrity, which of course is welcome advice for anyone in the business.

However, not all media style guides address blogs, online content and formatting, social media and email use, so if they are part of your job, look for a style guide that includes them, if your in-house guide does not (or find a web-specific guide that matches your work use).

There are good industry- or academic- specific style guides that can also be useful in other forms of writing, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (the “APA” guide, 7th edn., 2019). Their value to your work depends on your audience.

My first choice for a single volume is always the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edn., 2017). The CMOS is simply the most comprehensive authority and covers both usage and style.  I’ve been using and reading this since (as I recall) the 13th edition, in the 1980s, and still have the 15th and 17th editions on my bookshelf. Even though retired, I periodically pick it up and start browsing at random. As I often do with all my style guides, but I get additional joy from the elegant way the CMOS is presented and formatted.

I have to note that I disagree with how CMOS determines when a decade starts, but disagreeing with one small point in which I feel it is incorrect (mathematically and scientifically speaking) does not disqualify the rest of the 1,146 pages as a credible source. And it can double as a style and usage guide (although I still say you should get Fowler’s as well).

Extras: There are many other books I recommend every good writer should have (and have handy), but which are not essential as are the four above. Still, a good writer never stops reading and learning about their craft, and carries the passion for words with them no matter what else they are doing. Here are a few.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr (the original 1919 edition) and E.B. White (since 1959), now in its 4th edition (paperback, 2001), commonly referred to simply as “Strunk and White.” The classic guide.

While nitpickers have challenged some of the book’s rules and found inconsistencies or errata, it remains the single best guide to clear, concise writing. While originally intended for a bureaucratic audience, reading it will benefit every writer. As editor, I used to read it and recommend my reporters read it at least annually. At a mere 100 pages, it can easily be read in a single sitting. Get the latest edition, not the classic or pre-2000 editions.

Once upon a time, I sat down with a municipal communications officer to discuss various choices for style and usage references; what books would be used, what guides would be on the shelf. I mentioned Strunk and White as my favourite go-to book and got a blank stare. Never heard of it, and even when I explained further, got no indication of familiarity. For someone in that role to be utterly unfamiliar with Strunk and White flabberghasted me. It’s like a cook being unfamiliar with Betty Crocker.

Everyone who writes for a living, in any capacity, should have read it at least once. If they have not, they don’t deserve to be called a writer.

A book on type and typography. Type and layout affect comprehension, readability, impact, and enjoyment of any written piece, in any medium. While writers may not always have a role in layout or presentation, editors and designers really need to understand how type works, how to change and manipulate it. Or perhaps you just want to understand how type is structured, or the real difference between a typeface and a font: you should have a reference book or two.

My first choice would be The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst (2004), but this is perhaps a bit pedantic for the working editor and I offer instead Designing with Type, 5th Edition: The Essential Guide to Typography, by James Craig and Irene Korol Scala (2006) as the basic, nuts-and-bolts guide. Also, Thinking with Type by Ellen Lupton (2nd edn., 2010) is a very good resource. 

If you ever have to mull over which typeface or family to select, take a look at The Anatomy of Type: A Graphic Guide to 100 Typefaces (2012)
by Stephen Coles. I’ve spent many a happy hour with that book exploring type. I’ve also enjoyed reading Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield (2011). Joep Pohlen’s Letter Fountain: The Ultimate Type Reference Guide (2014) offers more than 600 pages on type, including examples of at least 100.

There are, of course, many others, but I’ve read these fairly recently, so I can speak to their usefulness, and the sheer joy of reading them.

For a more general work on layout and design, get The Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th edn., 2014) by Robin Williams. I think reporters should be conversant in design, not merely writing and words, not simply to be more educated, but because it’s a wise career move in an era when many newsrooms are downsizing and reporters end up taking on other tasks outside traditional roles.

The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect  Revised and Updated 3rd edn.2014), by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Essential reading for everyone in media, but particularly publishers, editors, and reporters. The authors explain what journalists should do and what the public expects of them. This edition also covers social media. It’s an important book and  I have referred to it in a few previous posts (like this one). The authors identify ten essential principles and practices of good journalism:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
  10. Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.

I had the uncomfortable experience a few years back of bringing this book with me to an interview with a local reporter, only to discover the reporter ‘sort-of’ knew about it, maybe read a bit of it, in school years back, an earlier edition, but didn’t really care about it, and certainly wasn’t interested in discussing journalistic ethics or roles with me. Local media, eh? What can you do? It’s not like these principles matter to them, is it?

Arthur Plotnik’s 1984 book, The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists has some good material, too, but it was never updated and feels stale and outdated today.

That’s it for now.

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