Manuscript 101–the Book List
Here it is, as promised, the start of a new series: Manuscript 101: Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them. Before I get started listing them, though, there are a few books I recommend every serious writer should have on hand. You can buy all of these books used–see the “more buying choices” at Amazon (linked) or you can look them up on www.alibris.com
The absolute, #1, must have reference book all writers should OWN is the Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition. This is the “bible” that nearly every single publishing house goes by when it comes to formatting manuscripts for publication. Each house will have its own unique, internal style, yes, but if you make sure your manuscript is in CMS format, you’ll be in good shape. You can also get an online subscription to the CMS—but I have not used it to know how helpful/useful it is. I like having my hard-cover book sitting on the shelf right beside me so that I can immediately go to the sections where I know certain topics are covered (such as numbers in chapter 9, capitalization in chapter 8, dialogue and quotations in chapter 11) and pages are marked for rules I have the most trouble remembering.
Another super-important reference book to have on hand is a grammar handbook. I recommend the Bedford Handbook of Style, which is what I used as an undergrad (and taught from as a T.A.). Don’t get anything older than the 5th edition (1998). This is the version I have at home, and as long as you’re not going to be writing research papers, the grammar info (which is what you’re getting it for) is all still accurate. Find the Instructor’s Annotated Edition if you can—it has the answers to the exercises listed in the student version, as well as additional notes. The Harbrace College Handbook is good, but isn’t as well laid-out as Bedford. (The most recent one I can find online is the 13th edition, which was published in 1998—it’s what I have on my desk at work, so it is still useful).
As a backup to the CMS, I also occasionally refer to Words into Type. It was published in 1974, but is still useful in that it explains the WHY of certain rules better than the CMS.
The reason I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a grammar handbook in addition to the CMS is that the CMS is not a grammar guide. It’s a formatting/style guide. Yes, it has rules about punctuation and usage, HOWEVER, it also says things like “a comma usually precedes” that don’t give absolute yes or no answers to the questions that will come up. If you did not major in English or take at least one senior-level grammar class in college, having a grammar handbook at your fingertips is going to be one of your best writing tools available.
You also need a good dictionary: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, or Random House dictionary, preferably other than a collegiate edition—though it doesn’t have to be unabridged (The AHD dictionary is not unabridged, but I’ve never looked up anything not in it)—with usage notes and other peripheral information included. If you cannot afford the most recent edition of a full dictionary (to make sure you know the currently accepted forms of words like Internet and online or the appropriate conjugation of the verb blog), an acceptable alternative is www.dictionary.com, which accesses the AHD and RHD, and www.m-w.com which is the online version of Merriam-Webster—however, some of their content is subscriber-only. Update: In answer to Amy’s question in the comments below, collegiate dictionaries aren’t bad if that’s what you already have on hand, but they do have a limited focus. Further, I recommend purchasing a good dictionary because it frees you from having to write/edit at a computer connected to the internet.
A usage book like Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of American Usage or Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage can also be very helpful, especially if you’re using regional/colloquial dialogue you’re not quite sure about—or if you want to make sure you aren’t using it!
Now, I’m not saying you need to go out and buy all of these tonight or else you won’t be able to follow this series. But I will be referring to especially the CMS and Bedford handbooks quite a bit, and to keep from infringing on copyright issues, I will not be able to include more than just a couple of quotes here and there.
So—I know which errors I want to make sure to expose . . . I mean expound upon in this series, but I want to make sure that your needs are being met. What are some problems you have with grammar or formatting? Have you gotten some critiques or contest feedback that have left you scratching your head wondering why they took off points for grammar, layout, or formatting? Are you lost when it comes to commas—or even worse, semicolons, colons, and em dashes?
What can I help you with?