Writers Reference Shelf
There’s such a wealth of brilliant reference books and CDs out there that we thought we’d chose our own favourites as the basis for a writer’s reference shelf. This is a personal list, but I think writers should not be without some version of the following: a good dictionary, an encyclopaedia (the bigger the better), a usage guide, a thesaurus and a style book. So here are my choices for these slots:
Many people prefer the Oxford Dictionary of English, which has all the authority of the Oxford English DictionaryWonderful online resource giving 'a truly astounding picture of the English language as an extraordinary living phenomenon' (Robert McCrum); Over 500,000 words history and database behind it, or the Collins English Dictionary, which is reckoned to be particularly wide-ranging and up-to-date, with good coverage of science and technology.
For my money though, it’s the literary favourite, the Chambers English Dictionary, every time. Although the Collins draws on the biggest corpus, or collection of texts, with its 850 million word Bank of English, it has been criticised for being too inclusive and not selective enough. Brickbats were thrown at its new edition for its inclusion of ‘quidditch’ and other ephemeral words when the new edition came out in August. Oxford has the academic high ground, with 80 million words, which they reckon are qualitatively superior and also representative of the way words are used today.
Chambers scores highest with new words with 10,000 in its latest edition and claims, according to Ian Brookes, their Senior Lexicographer, to be aimed at people who ‘have a love of words… We haven’t made any efforts to dumb down’
A big encyclopaedia loaded on your computer is an essential companion for instant reference on any subject. These days the electronic versions are incredibly cheap and really easy to use. The Encyclopaedia Britannica starts with the 2004 Standard on CD, which has the whole encyclopaedia and various ‘bundled’ reference books, making over 40,000 articles. It’s priced at £19.99, currently £15.99 from Amazon, and is a real bargain.
If you feel a bit richer, you can go for the 2004 Deluxe CD, with over 80,000 articles and a huge reference suite of other works. This sells for £39.99 (Amazon currently £31.99) and is probably worth the extra money if you want to economise on other reference books. Finally there’s the biggest one of all, the 2004 Reference Suite DVD Edition, the ultimate reference tool with over 100,000 articles and a free Britannica Quizmaster. This may be more than most writers want or need, unless you want to have your encyclopaedia on DVD. This weighs in at £69.98 (Amazon £44.98).
New Fowler's Modern English Usage
If you go for the Britannica, the reference books which come with it might mean that you can manage without much else, but I would also recommend a usage guide. New Fowler’s Modern English Usage is top of my list because of its great authority in the field. This will put you right on all those tricky points of how to use the language. If you’re an American you will probably prefer Struick’s classic The Elements of Style.
Another essential book if you are ever stuck for the right word, or trying not to use the same word again and again, is a good thesaurus, which will give you words which mean the same thing. Roget’s Thesaurus is the classic in the UK, but I would personally recommend Chambers Thesaurus for its better arrangement and much greater accessibility.
Oxford Guide to Style/Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors
All of these books are available from our WritersBookstall and can be supplied using the link to Amazon.
The Writer’s Writing Shelf, a recommended list of writing reference, is coming soon.
Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.