This should really be titled "Trish's Favorite Writing and Editing Resources." There are scores, maybe hundreds, of similar articles online. These are what I consider the essentials for being a writer or editor. And I've only scratched the surface.
I start with the basics, for those needing guidance with grammar rules and language mechanics. I then list several more advanced resources for those who need help with developing their writing style, tone, and presentation. Finally, I offer a short list of essential online tools.
The Basics: Grammar, Punctuation, Mechanics
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. If you buy only one grammar and composition guide (but why would you do that?), this is the one. What hasn’t been said about this little gem? First published in 1959, The Elements of Style is a perennial bestseller, available in a variety of versions, such as an annotated edition, an edition with a study guide, a 4th edition published in 1999, and a new inexpensive e-book version published in October 2020.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Here’s another classic owned by almost every writer and editor. The 30th Anniversary Edition was published in May 2006. Zinsser is a superstar journalist, magazine contributor, book author, editor, and university teacher.
100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost. This book is chockful of grammar rules. But it is more than just a grammar guide. You’ll find chapters on how to write an awesome beginning, overcome writer’s block, and ten ways to develop your style. A little powerhouse of a book. First published in 1972, an affordable mass market edition was published in May 2019.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. This book appears on many lists of “must have” writing reference guides. Dreyer’s English is notable for its humor and occasional tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. It is best appreciated by reading it in its entirety rather than thumbing through it as you might with other reference guides. Random House published a trade paperback edition in August 2020.
I’m also a fan of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner. Informative but witty and lighthearted. Grab a copy if you get the chance. The 4th edition was published in February 2019.
Now, my personal choices for the absolute most basic grammar books you should add to your reference library.
Hodges Harbrace Handbook/ The Writer’s Harbrace Handbook. During his tenure as a University of Tennessee (Knoxville) English professor in the 1930s, John C. Hodges obtained federal funding to support his study of the frequency of errors in college students’ essays. He collected 20,000 student papers, analyzed the errors in those papers, and used those findings to create the original Harbrace Handbook of English. When Hodges died in 1967, the textbook was in its sixth edition and was renamed Hodges Harbrace College Handbook. I owned a copy during my high school years in the 1970s and took it with me as my writer’s bible to my first professional writing job in 1979. I kept that edition for years. Since then, I’ve owned as many as three different editions at one time, because you can pick them up inexpensively in used bookstores. And I couldn’t help myself.
This handbook is so solid and complete, it did not undergo a significant revision until the 13th edition in 1990.
Now called The Writer’s Harbrace Handbook, written by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray, this version is in its 5th edition, last published in 2012. The new 6th Edition Writer’s Harbrace Handbook (with APA 7e Updates) will be available December 16, 2020. This book is still compiled with student writers in mind. In addition to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and language mechanics, it features sections on rhetorical reading and writing, essays, research, managing academic writing, and composing arguments. It can be purchased in hardcover, paperback, and purchased or rented as an e-textbook.
Advanced Writing Resources
If you have a handle on the basic rules of English grammar, you should fill your library with books that help you develop your personal style and make you a writer of quality prose. Here are a few of the books almost all authors and editors recommend.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A favorite among writers of fiction and nonfiction, it’s loaded with great advice and makes for an entertaining read. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner. Another fun, pleasant read that’s brimming with tons of priceless mentoring from a famous literary agent and acclaimed editor.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Guidelines for creativity and story development are told in an entertaining style. Writing Down the Bones offers hints of memoir, personal essay, and humor. Another great book for your library.
On Writing by Stephen King. It’s Stephen King, right? He’s a darn good writer. But my experience with this book is that King’s advice on creating a daily writing schedule can be a bit daunting. If you have a full-time job, school, and/or a home and family, his daily goals can be tough to achieve and many readers have gotten discouraged. If you read this book while acknowledging that you are not trying to be Stephen King, you’ll be fine.
Online Writing and Editing Resources
There are hundreds of online tools to guide, assist, and mentor writers and editors. So many, that I've chosen only three that offer basic but genuinely helpful writing assistance.
Grammarly is a helpful resource for grammar rules. It is free and wildly popular. But beware—at times, Grammarly is just plain wrong about the changes it suggests. Sometimes it flags words and phrases it doesn’t like but that are not necessarily incorrect. As a writer, you should know grammar rules—but as you grow as a writer, you will decide how and when to break those rules for a desired effect. Don’t let Grammarly cramp your style.
Hemingway Editor is popular as a free online writing and editing resource. It’s good and, in general, will help you streamline and tighten up your prose. But I don’t always agree with it. If you don’t understand Ernest Hemingway’s style and why so many strive to emulate it, I’ve talked about it in a couple of my blog posts: Overwriting, The Death of Clarity and A Work of Fiction is Not a Fill-in-the-blank Game.
A readability score roughly estimates the level of education someone would need to easily read a passage of text and comprehend it. A readability score of your work is more important than you might realize. Your prose readability score should align with your intended audience; you don't want to talk down to or over the head of your readers. There are numerous readability score tools online; I recommend Readability Test Tool as an easy-to-use, free option. Copy and paste chunks of your writing into this tool to receive your score.
Many Microsoft Word users don’t know that Word can give you a readability score and grade level of your documents. Open an existing document and try it out now. Here’s how it works:
1. Go to File > Options.
2. Select Proofing.
3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Word, make sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
4. Select Show readability statistics.
After you enable this feature, open a file that you want to check, and check the spelling by pressing F7 or going to Review > Spelling & Grammar. When Word finishes checking the spelling and grammar, it displays information about the reading and grade levels of the document.
Deciding what to include for this post was difficult. As I said, this barely scratches the surface of books and online tools available to help you improve your writing and editing skills. I'd like to know what resources you rely on. Drop your favorites in the comment box.