Writing Tip: Five Resources Every Writer Needs

A small section of my reference library.

Dictionary

Dictionaries go beyond telling you how to spell word correctly and what a word means. They also give you word history, syllabication (a fifty-cent word for how it breaks into syllables), labels (offensive, slang, obsolete), and more. Here are some popular dictionaries:

  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged: A good unabridged dictionary will list far more words than a collegiate dictionary will. MW’s dictionaries tend to be more conservative, meaning its lexicographers want more evidence of a word’s stability before they add it to their dictionaries. You can subscribe to MWU online for a modest fee.
  • American Heritage Dictionary: By far my favorite dictionary. AHD tends to add newer words at a quicker rate and it offers excellent usage notes. The notes tend to be descriptive, meaning they describe the issue and differing opinions but don’t dictate a solution. You can look up entries in AHD for free on Yahoo, get the dictionary on CD (beware: I had to give up my CD version when I switched to the 64-bit version of Vista; though I give Houghton Mifflin credit: when I reported to them I could no longer use the CD, they sent me an updated version for free. It will work for the 32-bit version of Vista, just not my less-popular 64-bit), or buy the paper version.
  • Webster’s New World College Dictionary: The Associated Press’s official dictionary. If you strictly follow AP style, this is the dictionary for you.
  • Word Spy and World Wide Words: These sites are good for very new terms. The men behind the scenes are serious about words and go to great lengths to define them.

Also check out industry-specific dictionaries and glossaries. Online, look for ones that have been edited by professionals. Webopedia is good for Internet-related terms. There’s an editorial staff behind it that ensures definitions are accurate. (Disclosure: I used to work for Webopedia’s parent corporation, though I never worked with the Webopedia folks.)

Thesaurus

Sometimes you just need a synonym — or an antonym. A good thesaurus can help you out. Here are three I use:

  • Thesaurus.com: A free resource.
  • Visual Thesaurus: A neat concept, where you can see the relationship between words as distance. You can subscribe online or purchase the CD. (Again, my CD wouldn’t work with my 64-bit Vista.)
  • Roget’s International Thesaurus: The granddaddy of thesauri (or thesauruses, if you prefer Anglicized plurals). This is the one your English teacher probably taught you to use. She was right: the current version has more than 330,000 words and phrases.

Style Guide

A style is meant to provide some consistency among a publisher’s content. It should be invisible rather than distracting. Which style guide you follow depends on what you’re writing about and who you are writing for.

Usage/Grammar Guide

You’ll need at least one good guide on usage and/or grammar for when you run into sticky situations. Some are written in easy-to-understand English, others take a more comprehensive approach. Choose one that fits your style:

Writing Advice

What are your favorite resources? What else do you, as a writer, need? Let me know in the comments below!

(And, yes, I earn a few pennies if you use click on an Amazon link and buy a book. Support your local editor and click!)

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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