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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Books About Writing Books

Check out the Thesaurus' sibling, Dictionary.
Check out the Thesaurus' sibling, Dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As writers, we all need to read; it's an essential part of the creative process. Anyone who tries to write but doesn't read will fail unless they rank amongst the geniuses.

But it's not the books you read for comparison, pleasure, or general information I want to discuss today. I want to introduce you to those books I use when actually engaged in the process of writing. I've never been a particular fan of the 'How To…' approach, although I do have a couple of titles, which begin with those words, on my shelves. I find myself drawn more to two distinctly diverse sets of books on or to do with writing.

First there are what I would define as the essential reference books; the dictionaries, grammar guides and others to do with the mechanics of setting words down on paper.

I once met a man, who styled himself an author, and discovered he didn't own a dictionary and never consulted one, even online. I was puzzled how someone dealing with words could be so uninterested in their true meanings, how an author could work without something as basic as a guide to what words actually mean. And then I had the misfortune to read one of his stories. It was, mercifully, short. Something like ten per cent of the words suffered incorrect spelling, another five per cent were simply the wrong words in the wrong places and, in a couple of cases, the words he'd used actually meant the exact opposite to what he had intended. I gently pointed out these facts to him. 'Just because it's in a dictionary, doesn't make it right!' was his first retort. I was tempted to use logic and reason on this poor arrogant and misguided fool but saw at once I'd be wasting my breath. He hasn't sent me any more of his writing. Although that wasn't my aim, I have to say I'm pleased. I hate cruelty, and the way he tortured English must have contravened some Article of the Geneva Convention. In fact, I believe he's stopped writing and is now expressing his talent through rather poorly executed  drawings. And, no, he's never had a drawing lesson or taken the trouble to visit an art gallery or read a book to see how an accomplished artist does the job.

I've used a number of dictionaries over the years, but my favourite is undoubtedly the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which I have in the 2 volume version in print and on a CD Rom. It probably says much about me that I prefer to rifle through the printed books when looking for meanings and/or spellings. I also have Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which is an excellent piece of work, though rather pricey. The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors has a place on my shelf and is consulted for those small technical issues not covered by other tomes. Then there's Laurence Urdlang's A Dictionary of Misunderstood Misused Mispronounced Words, which is a great source of fun as well as reference; good for 'dipping'. I gathered Julian Franklyn's A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang one day when I came across it in a book shop at the time I was developing a cockney character for a story; a useful addition, if a little specialist. And Hugh Rawson's A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk is a source of as much amusement as it is of information.

Some time ago, after suffering torture at the hands of a manager delivering a course on management techniques, I came across Kenneth Hudson's The Dictionary of Diseased English and knew I must have it. It's a useful defence for those moments when I'm tempted, by that devil sitting on my shoulder, into using the current jargon and management speak; its caustic and often sarcastic definitions of such language are enough to keep any writer on track and out of the quagmire. I particularly enjoy his comments about many of the terms used to describe wines.  My final dictionary dealing with words rather than other research subjects, is the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary; a cheat's aid for those occasions when you want to write some rhyming poetry but the muse fails to deliver.

Then there are those volumes that deal with how we actually use language. Here I'll simply list those I've bought because they each have something useful and pertinent to say about English usage.
Fowler's Modern English Usage - considered by many to be the ultimate authority.
Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English - occasionally useful for resolving issues at doubt.
Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers - a handbook to help in the editing process (especially of galley proofs).
Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage - a great book for dipping into or for trawling when some serious matter of grammar arises.
The Oxford Manual of Style - a book which does what it says on the spine.
And, of course, Thomas Parish's The Grouchy Grammarian, which addresses the 47 most common mistakes in English in a humorous manner.

Next are the other word books no self-respecting writer should be without: the Thesaurus. I have a selection, since each of the collection has something different to add to the lists of alternative words. A word of caution about these handy aids, however; they should be a last resort, following your own hard-thinking process, only when the elusive fails to materialise in your own imagination.
My favourite is the older edition of Roget's Thesaurus, rather amusingly subtitled 'New Edition', which it undoubtedly was when published in 1987. I prefer its layout and method of selection.
I also have the Oxford Compact Thesaurus, a real tome - heaven knows what the comprehensive version looks like!
Hartrampf's Vocabulary Builder deals with the subject in a slightly different manner and is now out of print. I purchased mine through an online second hand book dealer and use it from time to time when one of my others fails to quite satisfy.
The New Nuttall Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms serves well for those occasions when you know the word that means the opposite of what you actually need; a valuable member of the club.

So much for technicalities. What about inspiration and instruction? I long ago bought Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. If you buy no other book about the art of writing, buy this one. And do the exercises. It will help you immensely in your development as a wordsmith. The book has been in and out of print since it was first published in 1934. I obtained my 1984 reprint by chance from a second hand book shop. I did all the exercises and return to some of them from time to time to refresh my creative spirit.
Stephen King is a master of his craft and his On Writing is another source of inspiration. I recommend it.
And, to end this section, I'm currently part way through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, a book form of her 12 week course on creativity. If the rest of the book proves as valuable as the portion I've so far completed, this could well be the most important book on writing that I've ever read. Watch this space. (You should know that this is subtitled A Spiritual Path to Greater Creativity and she uses the concept of God as a generic term for the external creative force she exhorts her students to connect with. As a committed agnostic, I initially struggled with this concept, but, having understood what she really means by it, I've managed to get over what could have been a block to learning some extraordinarily valuable lessons about myself and my creative spirit).

And, finally, for the purposes of this article, I've a selection of small books dealing with the vagaries of English as she is spoke or writ from across the pond.
American English English American is a small softback that lists the different words that are used for the same things in both versions of our common language. Useful when writing for the US market if you're from the UK, and vice versa, of course.
Christopher Davies' Divided by a Common Language deals quite comprehensively with the differences and similarities of the two versions of the language and is definitely worth a place in your library if you want to write for both sides of the pond.
The Little Red Writing Book, by Brandon Royal, expands on a list of 20 powerful principles of structure, style and readability as understood by US standards.
And, to end this list, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White must be considered an essential guide for good writing aimed at US readers.

I haven't listed the many other reference books I've collected over the years, dealing with topics as diverse as symbolism, natural history and superstition, in more detail and allowing me to write with confidence on a wide range of subjects. I hope that simple enthusiasm for the subject is enough to ensure that writers will always arm themselves with such information.

So, these are some of the books that help me create my books. I'm sure writers and readers have their own lists. Perhaps you'd share your ideas here, by making a comment, so others can share and profit from your experience? Thank you.

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