5 essential writing reference books

Written by Emma Lawson

January 11, 2020

What are some of the ‘must-have’ reference books on your shelf? This post takes a look at some invaluable reference books for writers, editors, and proofreaders.

I should add that, with the exception of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, the following suggestions are for those interested in the mechanics of writing, rather than the craft of writing. I include the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook because it’s such a useful resource for those working in or involved in the publishing process.

As a freelancer working in writing, proofreading and copy-editing, these are the five books I wouldn’t be without:

1) New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (NODWE)

The NODWE is recommended by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and covers thousands of niggling words and phrases that make all of us reach for that extra cup of coffee.

It’s available online at www.oxforddictionaries.com.

However, if, like myself, you have a geeky satisfaction with seeing specialist books like this on your writing or editing desk, you’ll probably want to get the physical version. It’s brimming with entries that you won’t find in standard online and printed dictionaries and contains many newly coined or imported words.

2) New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Style Guide

The 21 chapters of New Hart’s Rules give a full account of capitalization, abbreviation, quotations, hyphenation, and publishing terms, as well as those irksome referencing matters that give even the most experienced writers and editors a headache.

The book is laid out in a logical arrangement and is clear to follow, and there are useful sections dealing with terms and references in the areas of science, mathematics, and computing.

On a highly superficial note, I love the look of the cover design on this collection (the NODWE, New Hart’s rules, and the New Oxford Spelling dictionary).

3) Butcher’s Copy-editing, The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders

Butcher’s copy-editing is a comprehensive guide for anyone working in publishing, with chapters on such matters as collating proofs, marking up typescript, and briefing the designer.

New and revised features include:

  • Up-to-date advice on indexes, inclusive language, reference systems and preliminary pages
  • A chapter devoted to on-screen copy-editing
  • Guidance on digital coding and publishing in other media such as e-books.

Newbie proofreaders will perhaps be better served starting with some of the other titles mentioned in this post and coming to Butcher’s later on for more comprehensive information.

4) Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

When Oxford University Press first published this volume in 1926, it became an authoritative English language reference book. Jeremy Butterfield has edited the fourth and latest edition. Do you need advice on split infinitives, or ending sentences with prepositions? This hefty tome has it all. Ongoing or on-going? One-time or one time? On line, online, or on-line? Turn to pages 576-577 and you will find solutions.

Butterfield gives a balanced view of the debatable misuse of particular phrases and words. Take, for example, the word ‘epicentre’:

‘Some pundits criticise the use of epicentre in anything other than its core meaning of “the point on the earth’s surface vertically above the focus of an earthquake”. For instance, one writer cautions: “Do not use it as a fancy word for centre, which too many pretentious writers do”. So, the question arises: should non-seismologists avoid it at all costs? It depends. In what seems like a legitimate extension of its core meaning, it denotes the central point of something, typically a difficult or unpleasant situation, such as epidemics, outbreaks of illness, terrorism, etc., e.g. the two farms treated as the epicentre for the outbreak of the bird flu – Daily Despatch, 2004. So far, so good: to object to its use in that way seems a trifle pedantic. More debatable, however, is its use to heighten descriptions of creative, cultural or political movements, which seems to be largely a mannerism of British journalism, e.g. I want to be at the epicentre of youth culture for as long as I care to continue working – Guardian, 2003. Replacing ‘epicentre’ with ‘centre of’ or ‘right at the centre of’ would not change the meaning of the sentence and would make it less pompous.’*

5) Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

Perhaps you’ve pressed save on the final version of your manuscript. What next? The path to getting published or self-publishing should include a good understanding of the market you’re writing for; after all, writing is both an art and a business – assuming you want to make a living from writing.

Packed with tons of practical advice and useful links, this book is published on a yearly basis. It covers everything from choosing a literary agent, with a listing of national and international publishers, to the finer details of self-publishing.

You will also find a series of short articles on a variety of genres, be that spy fiction or writing for the health and wellness market.

In addition, it contains a wealth of information on the more mundane but nevertheless important elements of professional writing: copyright law and publishing rights, licensing, income tax, and an article from Peter Arrowsmith and Sarah Bradford on National Insurance contributions and social security benefits.

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation is another useful little book and is arguably one of the best to start with because of its simple explanatory style and layout. In terms of the American market, The Chicago Manual of Style tops the list.

Before I undertook any professional training with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), I read through William Strunk’s classic, The Elements of Style, which comes recommended by none other than Mr King.

It was a dry read, admittedly, but it takes you right back to the basics and provides good examples of not only grammatically incorrect language usage but also general principles of strong writing.

Strunk had no patience for insipid language and repetitive, redundant phrases. Richard De A’Morelli has since edited updated versions of the title to acknowledge nuances in modern language and style (Elements of Style 2017).

We know that the written word is evolving: even the Oxford Dictionary has managed to squeeze the words ‘hangry’, ‘mansplaining’ and ‘breadcrumbing’ between its pages, and many fiction writers break away from convention in terms of punctuation and flow – Margaret Atwood, for example, has favoured unbroken streams of consciousness in some of her novels. There is wiggle room, depending on the genre, but it pays to know the rules of language before veering away from them.

What do you think? Should these books grace the shelves of every writer, editor and proofreader? What have you found helpful, and what would you add to the collection?

Update (February 2020): I have added the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary to my collection, which completes the three-part collection from Oxford University Press (New Hart’s Rules; New Oxford Spelling Dictionary for Writers and Editors; New Oxford Spelling Dictionary). This guide is incredibly helpful for writers, proofreaders and editors. Topics include word division at line ends; hyphenation of compounds, confusable words and italicisation of foreign words. It also offers useful clarification of US and British preferred spellings.


* Butterfield, Jeremy (ed)., Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th edn., Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2015), p. 264.


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