My five favorite reference books for writers

A printed book is sometimes the best place to find a solution to your question about writing style, punctuation, or grammar.

Here are my five favorite reference books. I have updated this list because my favorites have changed over time, most notably with the elevation of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the “honorable mention” list.

  1. Edit Yourself: A manual for everyone who works with words by Bruce Ross-Larson. Everyone should own this small, inexpensive, easy-to-use book. I use Part II, the back of the book, the most. It lists troublesome words in alphabetical order. It’ll help you cut pretentious words and resolve problems such as deciding between “which” and “that.” Part I describes and offers solutions to problems common in everyday writing. Buy it today!
  2. Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner. This book runs over 900 pages in length, so it covers just about any question you may ask. When I first published this list of favorite books, I wrote: “But it’s so darned technical I only turn to it as a last resort.” How times have changed! Now it’s the first book I turn to when tackling problems such as “Treasurys vs. Treasuries — Which is the right spelling?” I rank it behind Ross-Larson’s book only because I think Edit Yourself will be much more useful for most of my readers.
  3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn. I didn’t own this book when I first compiled my list of favorite books. Like Garner’s book, this delves more into the nuances of different grammar issues than book readers who aren’t grammar nerds.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook. If you’ve ever heard an editor say, “We follow AP style,” they’re talking about the print or online edition of this style book. I rarely check my print edition because I prefer the constantly updated online edition, which I complement with a subscription to the online Webster’s New World College Dictionary. There’s also subscription software, Styleguard, for checking adherence with this guide. (I stopped using the software for reasons described in my blog post about Styleguard.) You can follow AP style on Twitter at @APStylebook or on Facebook.
  5. The Grammar Bible by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas. This book gives plain English explanations of vexing issues of grammar and more.

Honorable mention

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) was my favorite reference book for many years. If you’re writing a book or Ph.D. dissertation (as I was doing when I bought this book), rather than blog posts, articles, or other marketing pieces, this is an essential reference. It’s also useful for topics such as tables and other exhibits, which aren’t addressed by AP style. You can also subscribe online to the manual, get it integrated into PerfectIt proofreading software (which I’ve blogged about in “My three main software tools for proofreading,” and follow it on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities. Like CMOS, this book is aimed at individuals preparing manuscripts for publication. This fat classic from 1974 used to be my second “go to” reference book when flummoxed by a question of style, punctuation, or grammar. The importance of this book fell for me when I became a convert to AP style.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. If you care about good writing, you should read this classic at least once. An early edition is online at Bartleby.com.

Your favorites?

If you’re passionate about good writing, you’ve probably got a favorite reference that I’ve overlooked. Please tell me about it by answering this poll question.

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Updated: November and December 2021

Top posts from 2022’s first quarter

Check out my top posts from the first quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on grammar (#1, #5), social media (#2), blogging (#3), and writing (#4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2021’s first quarter:

  1. Pronoun question: is the Fed “it” or “they”?–This is an ongoing issue. I feel strongly about the right answer, but some investment professionals feel strongly about using the other pronoun.
  2. Why I’m not using LinkedIn Creator Mode
  3. Legal danger for financial bloggers: Two misconceptions, three resources, one suggestion
  4. Go from short to long!
  5. So at the start of a sentence

Why I write for you

You can reach more clients and prospects when you put your useful ideas into writing. However, many investment and wealth managers lack the time—or maybe the skill—to put ideas into writing persuasively. That means your audience loses an opportunity to benefit from your expertise.

When your writing isn’t as strong as your ideas, you may gain from a good editor or writer with industry knowledge to shape your ideas into compelling prose.

Why I write for you infographic

 

While you may get your thrills from helping your clients reach their financial goals, mine come from cracking the mystery of how to communicate your information persuasively. I’ve developed my skill through a variety of experiences.

  • As  a writer-editor for leading investment and wealth management firms and former director of investment communications at Columbia Management, I understand your industry and your vocabulary. Between real-life experience and the studies that led to earning my CFA charter, I know that if you talk about a bond’s “duration,” I must translate that into simpler language for the average investor.
  • As editor of the NAPFA Advisor, a monthly publication for financial advisors, I know how to communicate with that audience, which may be an important target for you.
  • As a former reporter for a weekly mutual fund publication, I know that you’ve got to grab your reader’s attention at the beginning of your story. I’ll question you until I understand your “hook.” I also understand the importance of deadlines.
  • As a corporate trainer and public speaker, I’ve developed the ability to help you become a better writer and editor. It has been exciting to speak across North America on “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read” for the CFA Institute and about “Writing Effective Emails ” for chapters of the Financial Planning Association. I’ve captured many of my techniques in my book, Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enjoy helping you!

 

 

Note: This post was originally published in September 2009 and updated in June 2014 and November 2021.

Top posts from 2021’s fourth quarter

Check out my top posts from the fourth quarter!

They’re a mix of practical tips on blogging (#1), grammar (#2 & #5), and writing (#3 & #4).

My posts that attracted the most views during 2021’s fourth quarter:

  1. 20 topics for your financial blog
  2. How I use Grammarly to improve my writing
  3. When do you need to cite sources?
  4. My 2021 reading with suggestions for you
  5. Can you use numerals at the start of a sentence?

Resource for your global communications

More investment and wealth managers have clients and other important relationships outside the borders of the U.S. The online Microsoft Writing Style Guide from Microsoft includes a section on global communications that may help you communicate more effectively with your prospects, clients, colleagues, referral sources, and vendors.

For example, its:

  • Time and place page offers tips on dates, time, seasons, and places—for example, “Don’t refer to seasons if you can avoid it. Talk about months or calendar quarters instead. If you must mention a specific season, establish the hemisphere, too. (Summer in the northern hemisphere is winter in the southern hemisphere.)”
  • Currency page provides advice on the capitalization of currencies and how to refer to specific amounts of money
  • Names and contact information page advises you on how information collection forms should differ from those for a U.S. audience and tells you that in some countries it’s not appropriate to address a customer by name

Click around on the site! You may learn something that’ll help you to connect better with your readers.

Non-U.S. style guidelines from other organizations

After drafting this blog post, I came across some more online resources for non-U.S. style guidelines. Here are three style guides for the U.K.:

Please contact me if you know of other style guides I should add to this list. I’m always happy to learn from you.

Simple language helps your readers, even when they understand technical terms

Plain language helps your readers, even when they understand technical terms.

The Yahoo! Style Guide makes a great point on this topic:

Even if more technical or sophisticated language is appropriate for your site, your readers will appreciate simpler language in the areas where their eyes are scanning to determine what a page is about.

use simple language infographic

Example of how to use simple language

How does this apply to you? Let’s assume, for example, that you’re writing a piece about the Bloomberg Barclays Capital US Aggregate Bond Index. That’s quite a long name—too long for a snappy headline or heading.

If you are speaking face-to-face with bond geeks, you can probably refer to “the Agg” because you can judge from your conversation—and their faces—whether they understand your language. If you say “Bloomberg Barclays Capital US Aggregate Bond Index,” they’ll probably become impatient with the long-winded, overly precise language.

However, such “insider” language probably isn’t right for a printed piece. It’s too casual.

What’s the solution?

You could substitute “bond index” or “investment-grade bond index” in your headline or heading. As Yahoo suggests, this will help your readers to skim. If they don’t immediately realize you’re talking about the Agg, they’ll quickly pick it up when they dive into the body of your piece, where it’s good to be precise about your index.

Try using plain language. If you do it right, you’ll enjoy the results.

To learn more about plain language and other pillars of powerful written communications, check out the June 26 webinar, “How to Write Investment Commentary People Will Read.”

Disclosure: If you click on the Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I only link to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.
Note: I’ve updated this post, which originally ran in April 2014.

Secret of regular blogging

In 2010, a portfolio manager told me his most powerful tip for blogging on a regular schedule:

“I speak my thoughts into Dragon NaturallySpeaking.”

This speech recognition software transcribes his words, so he need not type his first draft. This is a great time saver.

Back then, Dragon software was your main option for automated transcription of whatever you said. Since then, your options have multiplied. Your smartphone probably offers a voice assistant that can transcribe your speech. There are also options from third parties, such as Otter.ai or the automated transcription service from Rev.

If automated transcription services’ errors, such as typing “NASA allocation” for “an asset allocation,” are too annoying, you can hire a human transcriptionist.

The bottom line: If dictation helps you to write more regularly or quickly, use it.

Secrets of regular blogging infographic

 

Note: This was updated in February and November 2021.

Go from short to long!

Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.

Ross-Larson has three related rules.

  • First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
  • Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
  • Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.

Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:

  • Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
  • Create unintended modifiers
  • Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes

Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.

 

 

Disclosure: If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I provide links to books only when I believe they have value for my readers.

Use calendar invitations to keep your experts on schedule

Do you ever struggle to get your authors and subject-matter experts to return their edits and comments on time? I’ve learned a new way to nudge them.

This year a new person took over coordinating an editing project that I’d worked on before. I was surprised that the project ran more or less on schedule, in contrast to my earlier experience.

Luckily for you, my contact told me her secret. Every time I gave an author a deadline, the coordinator sent a Microsoft Outlook calendar invitation for that deadline to the author.

That’s brilliant!

An electronic calendar invitation acts as a gentle reminder of a deadline, especially if the recipient monitors their calendar and sets reminders about items on the calendar.

Try this to see if it works for you!

My 2021 reading with suggestions for you

This year I devoted much of my serious reading time to learning more about race through nonfiction and fiction. I also grappled with some issues of race on my blog in “How to edit articles about Black people” and “Working with a sensitivity reader.”

Race—nonfiction

blindspotBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji—I also enjoyed a Zoom presentation by Banaji, which I wrote about in my NAPFA Advisor column.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

CasteCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson—this is a very powerful book.

Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body by Savala Nolan

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo

The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table by Minda Harts

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

the sum of usThe Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee—this book is upbeat about what people can achieve by working together.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho

Race—fiction

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson

One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Memoir

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent

The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees by Meredith May

The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

Baking

artisan sourdough made simpleArtisan Sourdough Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Delicious Handcrafted Bread with Minimal Kneading by Emilie Raffa—this is my favorite sourdough bread book because the author’s blog got me started on my sourdough journey after I received a gift of sourdough starter from my local Buy Nothing group. Also, the bagel recipe in this cookbook turned out well.

Baking Sourdough Bread: Dozens of Recipes for Artisan Loaves, Crackers, and Sweet Breads by Göran Söderin

The Elements of Pizza: Unlocking the Secrets to World-Class Pies at Home by Ken Forkish

Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish

The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook by Jim Lahey

Super Sourdough by James Morton

Personal growth

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow, Ann Friedman

The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest by Dan Buettner

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte—I quit reading this book partway through because it felt focused on mothers. Skip it if you’re not a mother.

Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek H. Murthy

Writing

Write RightWrite Right! by Jan Venolia—similar to Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson, which I mention in my “My five favorite reference books for writers,” this is a reference book that’s approachable for folks who aren’t professional word nerds.

Other nonfiction

The Devil’s Financial Dictionary by Jason Zweig—this is an entertaining, somewhat snarky, and informative book by an insightful columnist for The Wall Street Journal.  Because of its snark, I’m not sure if it really belongs under “nonfiction.” For example, it defines “fair-value pricing” as “a guess.” My impression is that definition sometimes but doesn’t always apply. However, I think students of financial services who already understand most of the vocabulary will be amused as they leaf through the book’s pages. Zweig writes, “…the definitions presented here should not—quite—be taken as literally true. But most of them are very close; no matter how cynical you are about Wall Street, you aren’t cynical enough.”

The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance by Judy Batalion

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley—having earned a Ph.D. in Japanese history, I like to read about Japan occasionally

Other fiction

the seige winterAt the End of the Matinee by Keiichirō Hirano—this is another book I enjoyed partly for its connection with Japan.

The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin—this was my favorite mystery in 2021. I also greatly enjoyed the Ruth Galloway mystery series, including A Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths.

Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino—another Japanese author’s book