Some professional communicators feel that using a reference resource makes it look as if they don’t know what they’re doing, but as I’ve often said, a well-thumbed reference book is an indication of a conscientious writer. Different writers will need different resources, but I’ve listed a few of my favorite tools below in alphabetical order. You may have most of these already but there might be one or two that you didn’t know about, so take a quick look.
The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law
This book serves as the“style bible” for news writing so if you’re in public relations, you need it in order to avoid any gaffes in your materials to journalists. The style book is updated regularly, e.g., the 2013 edition included nearly 100 changes and updates, so if you use the print version, be prepared to buy new editions. Another option is subscribing to the online version. I’ve switched to an online subscription because it means the information is available without my having to lug the book around with me when I’m on the go.
Additionally, I absolutely love the online version’s “Ask the Editor” feature and archive. It’s amazing how often special cases pop up when I’m writing, and I need advice on how to handle the situation. E.g., the style book recommends not using all-caps for a company name unless all the letters are individually pronounced like BMW, so I needed to know how to handle a company name like BRIGHT marketing (not the real name). The “Ask the Editor” archive had the answer: capitalize only the first letter. Having that evidence was also handy in case the client had questions.
Chicago Manual of Style
Another very popular style book, the CMS is a hardcover tome where the AP style book is a non-threatening paperback. Of course, that means that practically any question you have is likely to be within its pages. Generally, the guide is for book authors but I’ve used it for journal articles.
The current edition (the 16th edition) has been updated to include guidance on electronic publishing. You can also take advantage of online subscriptions for the 15th and 16th editions as well as a Q&A form and archive (just in you do have a question that the manual itself does not answer).
The Elements of Style
This style guide should be in the toolkit of every nonfiction writer (and if you write fiction, it still wouldn’t hurt). Although it’s a small, slim book, The Elements of Style includes the following sections:
- Rules of usage (e.g., do not break sentences in two)
- Principles of composition (e.g., express co-ordinate ideas in similar form)
- Guidelines for formatting (e.g., consult a dictionary to properly divide the syllables of a word when necessary)
- Commonly misused words and expression (e.g. aggravate [add to an already vexing situation] versus irritate [to annoy, vex or chafe])
- Approaches to style (e.g., use figures of speech sparingly)
If you want to write concise yet dynamic copy, read the Elements of Style. Then read it again.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
This dictionary is the Chicago Manual of Style‘s recommended companion dictionary (it tackles any spelling or usage questions not covered in the style book). The manual’s first pick is Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, but it also states that if the two dictionaries disagree, you should follow the Collegiate, so why bother recommending the Third New International? If you don’t have the Collegiate on hand, you can use information from www.merriam-webster.com.
Bear in mind that, as weird as it may seem, style guides and their companion dictionaries don’t always agree on spelling. So, before you turn to a dictionary, see if the style guide has anything to say about a certain word.
Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)
When I was just starting out as a freelance writer, the OWL supplied me with invaluable citation and formatting information for American Psychological Association (APA) and Chicago style until I felt comfortable spending the money to purchase my own manuals. You can also find information on Modern Language Association (MLA) citation and format style. The website also has sections that cover various types of professional writing, e.g. technical, engineering, journalism, medical, etc. (no public relations though).
Webster’s New World College Dictionary
Anyone who uses the Associated Press Stylebook should also have this dictionary on hand. As with the CMS and the Collegiate, check the AP style book first and if it does not cover the word in question, use the first spelling listed in the dictionary.
If the dictionary has separate entries for the same term and the entries feature different spellings (the AP style book uses the examples of tee shirt and T-shirt), then you should use the spelling that’s accompanied by a full definition. If both entries have definitions, then the style book considers both spellings acceptable.
As I mentioned, different writers will need different resources, but these are the ones that have served me well throughout my freelancing years. What writing or editing tools suit you best? If you have a resource to recommend, leave a comment.