I have a confession to make. I hate writing introductions. I struggled with the topic for my first post here. In future posts, I’ll be tackling some of the things that make editors cry (and not in a good way) and discussing some of the tools writers can use to make their work more effective. I just hate to open with complaints. At the same time, we don’t really know each other well enough for you to take my advice, right? This first post, then, takes up a reasonably harmless subject: shopping.
Only 15 days separate us from Thanksgiving, which means that the holiday shopping season isn’t far behind. In this opening post, I’ll share the most useful resources I rely on as an editor. They’re easy to come by, and they make great gifts for writers in any stage of their careers.
- A good grammar book. The one on my shelf is stolen; I took it from my brother after he graduated from high school. It’s old, but I tend to agree with Leah. I don’t think grammar should float on the current of popular opinion. Grammar is like a navy blue suit or a little black dress. It’s timeless and sophisticated, and put to its proper use, it’ll make you look that way, too. If you don’t have a sibling who will look the other way while you take his things, consider Jane Straus’s The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. It’s approachable and easy to use, a great resource that blends the classic rules of grammar with modern usage. Her website also has a set of grammar quizzes to test your language mettle.
- The Chicago Manual of Style. The jolly orange giant goes beyond grammar and into the world of style to answer a writer’s most troublesome questions. Should “french fries” be capitalized? (It shouldn’t, and neither should “india ink.”) The Second Coming is capitalized, but hell, purgatory, and original sin are not. My copy falls open to Chapter 7, which includes the rules on compound words, possessives, and hyphenation. So many publishers lean on the Chicago Manual that it makes sense to get very comfortable with the rules. How comfortable? Well, I like to insert tape flags on the pages I refer to all the time. Seriously, I derive enjoyment from doing that. But I’m a geek. You might find that a little disturbing.
- A visual dictionary. The one on my shelf is a gift from the same brother from whom I stole my grammar book. A visual dictionary contains loads of pictures of objects as diverse as spacesuits, dining utensils, art supplies, and fashion accessories. Each illustration features captions with the proper names of the item’s components. Not only will a visual dictionary help you distinguish the fish knife from the cheese knife, but it’ll also tell you what to call that little rubbery thing between your glasses and your nose. (It’s a nose pad, the little oval gold thing inside it is a pad plate, and the thing holding it onto your glasses is a pad arm.) Sure, some of the information is a little obscure, but sometimes that’s a good thing. In his novel Intensity, Dean Koontz taught me what a pintle and gudgeon are. They’re little details that remind me of him every time I open a door. Visual dictionaries are available online, but they’re quite addictive. I dare you not to spend at least half an hour poking around Merriam-Webster’s.
If you’ve got the basics on your shelf already, the best thing you can do to build those language skills is to read. Reading builds vocabulary, exposes you to different modes of voice and tone, and shows you new and elegant ways to use the language. Read whatever you can, inside and outside of your chosen genre. Think of it like the “balanced breakfast” we used to see on commercials for cereal. Sure, we could just eat the Cocoa Puffs all by themselves, but you’re supposed to have toast, orange juice, and a piece of fruit, too.
The more you read, the more you’ll come to see the flexibility in some of these grammar and usage rules. That’s a good thing. It’ll give us something to talk about the next time I’m here.
What’s your favorite editorial resource book? I’m always looking for things to buy … and to ask for.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.