Cool Tools

Is the bookshelf the reflection of the person? We writers and editors are only as good as our libraries, although those libraries today must include resources online as well as in print. Here are some working lists of sites and sources essential to wordsmiths.

Books to inspire

My favorite part of the writing process comes at the beginning: I go the Library of Congress and search for everything ever written on my subject. Then I find a carrel and wait for books to be delivered to me. One of those was a delightful book called The Garden of Eloquence, published in 1577. Another was a little book self-published by Mark Twain called English As She Is Taught, which collected the hilarious impressions schoolchildren hold of grammar.

Here are other books that have become my favorites, whether because I discovered them at the Library of Congress, or because I’ve turned to them again and again when I’ve been in trouble. The list also includes books recommended by writers I trust. They are listed alphabetically, so make sure to read to the end!

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Best of narrative journalism (articles)

Interested in exploring narrative journalism by reading some of it? I’d call these the “classics” among essays and articles. They are listed chronologically, so that you can trace the evolution of the genre over three centuries. The first selection is a chronicle of a day in the life of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The last is a two-part series that marries the best of investigative grit with literary writing.

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Best of narrative journalism (books)

Writers and editors throw the term narrative journalism around loosely, and many don’t really know how to define it. Here’s my own short definition: narrative journalism is reported nonfiction that uses the techniques of fiction to enliven the story.

Here is a sampling of some of the best works of narrative journalism that have been published in books.

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Grammar, in doorstoppers & handbooks

Having trouble remembering when to use who and whom? Confused by which and that? Want to bone up on the parts of a sentence? Well, hie thee to a bookstore and buy Sin and Syntax, which will also tell you how deploy these grammatical fine points to write “wicked good prose.” If you hunger for more, here are my favorite grammar guides—from the geeky to the goofy.

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Grammar sites and blogs that bite

I’m a big fan of books, and I love, love, love my library. That’s where I go first when I have language questions. But maybe you’re on the road, or you just love to surf the Web. Here are some online resources that I have found to be both credible and helpful when it comes to grammar questions.

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The lowdown on dictionaries

There are a gazillion dictionaries out there, and some are much more respected than other. Many people think “Webster’s” is the key word, but it’s actually meaningless; what matters is the publisher and its reputation for lexicography. Here’s a roundup on the dictionaries editors tend to favor, with a bit of explanation as to why.

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So as not to bore us, get a thesaurus

Some people put thesauruses in a category with the pegasuarus–that is, extinct. But not me! The thesaurus (the one on my bookshelf, not the one in Microsoft Word) is my favorite tool. Why? because I’m an absolute fiends about finding the right word, and I need help to do it.

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Style, the way the editors define it

Most writers think that style refers to the way we write, the flair and artistry we bring to words on the page. But in the publishing world, editors and copy editors use the term to refer to the very particular way they treat certain words–putting book titles in italics, say, or using OK rather than okay. […]

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Books on usage and abusage

Usage guides don’t define words as a dictionary does, and they don’t tell you how to capitalize words or where to put hyphens as a style manual does. Instead they explain the way we use words in English, and the subtle differences between certain words (e.g., affect and effect) that are often confused.

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