The Writers' Reference Shelf
Shelly Lowenkopf -- October 24, 2005
Somewhere within handy reach of the professional writer's principal work station lurks that eclectic and notional assortment of books, guides, and assemblages euphemistically known as The Reference Shelf.
Mine starts on a ledge over my desk, then extends to the floor on each side. As well, there is a nearby five-shelf storage fixture, in large part occupied by books, magazines, and notebooks I consult with some frequency.
In your dealings with fiction, you may have stumbled across the concept of the unreliable narrator. I am an unreliable speller, bad enough in a writer (although it did not seem to stop F. Scott Fitzgerald), but inexcusable to someone who wears the editorial hat as often as I do. Accordingly, many of my at-hand references relate to spelling.
Even when I'm on the bully pulpit for dictionaries as guides to meaning, I secretly thank my collection of dictionaries for the security of correct spelling. I thank them as well for settling internal squabbles between my spiky, notional, anything-goes writer and my more conservative let's-keep-this-piece-in-American-English writer. The Merriam-Webster New Collegiate, 13th Edition, is a standard, favored by many publishing houses and a number of published authors. At the time I served my copyediting apprenticeship, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged, 2nd Edition, was considered the an affordable luxury, and became so popular that the MW people, as do so many publishers, decided that new must be better. The MW3 raised hackles everywhere, thanks to its take on definitions, hyphenation, word breaks, and preferential order of accepted use. This left the door open for what has evolved to be The American Heritage Unabridged, 3rd Edition, a splendid and inclusive work that includes many of the features that make the Oxford English Dictionary (on historical principles) so splendid. AH3, if you are not careful, will grab you the way a mystery novel can, and you will spend more time browsing than you intended. Just ask Barnaby Conrad. He still swears at me some years after I gave him AH3 for Christmas, complaining about the impossibility of seeking a single definition, then being able to reenact a George W. Bush mission accomplished performance.
Commandment Number One: Thou shalt have at least one Merriam- Webster or American Heritage dictionary nearby.
Style, in the mechanical sense, refers to usage, as in when and how to use numerals, when to spell out numbers, where to put commas, how to deal with acronyms, how to deal with quotes, the difference between ellipsis points and dashes, and other, similar matters. Most American book publishers, and many American authors rely heavily on CMOS, the Chicago Manual of Style. This venerable collection of usage conventions has been around since the late 1880s. The 17th edition contains useful additions relating to electronic publishing.
Commandment Number Two: If thee think'st to have thy manuscript published by an established publisher (forget the literary form of onanism known as self-publishing), get thee hence to CMOS.
If you're thinking to send materials to blogs, journals, magazines, or newspapers, you're better equipped with a copy of The New York Times Style Guide, which is adequate coverage for most non-book venues. The LA Times also publishes a style guide; so does The Associated Press, each of which is more than adequate to the task.
Commandment Number Three: Check the publication to which you intend submission, noting its preference in usage.
Hint: Each of the style guides referenced here have excellent introductory essays which will help you to focus on this vital aspect of manuscript preparation.
Added Hint: Amy Einsohn's estimable The Copy Editor's Handbook (University of California Press) will prove invaluable in helping you sort out your usage problems and in the bargain, steer you to related publications for your own personal reference shelf.
Yet Another Hint: Why, you ask, haven't you included the deservedly famous The Elements of Style by Strunk and White? True enough, it is valuable, although a bit simplistic. I'll put it this way; it's a primer and you already know or have been exposed to much of its contents. On the Beisner Beignet Scale, the Strunk and White is a four; CMOS is a nine, and Einsohn is ten.
There are indeed more Commandments to come, more publications to have in your personal reference shelf.
P.S. If you don't know what a beignet is, you need to find out soon.