Is the bookshelf the reflection of the person? We writers and editors are only as good as our libraries, although those libraries today must include resources online as well as in print. Here are some working lists of sites essential to wordsmiths.

Writers on writing

Some “how to” books that actually help

My favorite part of the writing process comes at the beginning: I go the Library of Congress and search for everything ever written on my subject. Then I find a carrel and wait for books to be delivered to me. One of those was a delightful book called The Garden of Eloquence, published in 1577. Another was a little book self-published by Mark Twain called English As She Is Taught, which collected the hilarious impressions schoolchildren hold of grammar.

Here are other books that have become my favorites, whether because I discovered them at the Library of Congress, or because I’ve turned to them again and again when I’ve been in trouble. The list also includes books recommended by writers I trust. They are listed alphabetically, so make sure to read to the end!

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Grammar: Books, bookmarks, and bona fide doorstoppers

My favorite guides

Having trouble remembering when to use who and whom? Confused by which and that? Want to bone up on the parts of a sentence? Well, hie thee to a bookstore and buy Sin and Syntax, which will also tell you how deploy these grammatical fine points to write “wicked good prose.” If you hunger for more, here are my favorite grammar guides—from the geeky to the goofy.

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The lowdown on dictionaries

Top-shelf word books for lovers of language

A writer’s relationship with her dictionary is not one to take lightly. Or monogamously. My own bookshelves hold eight different English dictionaries. (And no, I did not get the OED for Christmas, even though I gave my beloved the Ragazzini’s 2,400-page Italian-English doorstopper). And let’s not forget my French and Hawaiian tomes. Or my wonderful visual dictionary. Or my various thesauruses.

Some dictionaries are fine in a pinch, others are sturdy go-to’s for everyday fogged memories, and still others are used as heavy-duty lifters of linguistic archaeology. The difference is in the seriousness of the lexicographers and the credibility of their methods.

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So as not to bore us, get a thesaurus

And Roget's is both rich and reliable

Some people put thesauruses in a category with the pegasaurus—that is, extinct. But not me! The thesaurus (the one on my bookshelf, not the one in Microsoft Word) is my favorite tool. Why? because I’m an absolute fiend about finding the right word, and I need help to do it.

Be aware of the difference between “Roget’s style” and “dictionary style” thesauruses or “synonym finders.” The latter two are arranged alphabetically; the former uses an index in the back and numbered entries in the front. A Roget’s involves multiple steps (looking up a word in the back index, and then turning to various ones of the numbered citations), but yields many more possible synonyms and will inspire you to find the perfect word.

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Books on usage and abusage

Getting intimate with words

Usage guides don’t define words as a dictionary does, and they don’t tell you how to capitalize words or where to put hyphens as a style manual does. Instead they explain the way we use words in English, and the subtle differences between certain words (e.g., affect and effect) that are often confused.

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