Are These Reference Books In Your Personal Library?

Copyediting is as much about teaching the craft of writing to authors as it is about working the edits on a manuscript. Teaching often means recommending helpful books for any number of particular problems authors have with stories. I have at some point recommended all the titles listed below to different authors.

Some are straightforward reference books, such as Rodale’s Synonym Finder, but indispensable: I quit counting when I reached 125 and there were still more alternative choices for “red.” It’s better by far than Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus.

Other titles are enjoyable learning romps through the dull stuff of punctuation, such as The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. Or, why you should never ever never drown your book in ly adverbs, as is explained in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve.

Story, by Robert McKee, is a take on how to write books as if you were making a movie—which is exactly what I try to convince all my authors: A novel is a mental movie; don’t do anything that causes the readers to see the words that break the film and sends it spinning around the spool. Yes, I know, nobody uses film anymore.

I’m one of those editors who doesn’t like to see words or phrases that are “out of time” in novels. If I’m concerned, for instance, that something a character is saying in a novel set in 1918, and I’m pretty sure the phrase or word didn’t come into the language until later, I’ll refer to Movers and Shakers—A Chronology of Words to confirm my suspicions. It’s a great trip down memory lane, too.

I encourage you to check these out, and if one, two, or more resonate with you, please bring them into your life to have them handy when the need arises.

Craft of Writing

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)


“. . . What actually causes that great feeling is a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s a chemical reaction triggered by the intense curiosity that an effective story always instantly generates. It’s your brain’s way of rewarding you for following your curiosity to find out how the story ends, because you just might learn something you need to know.

“When we’re under the spell of a compelling story, we undergo internal changes along with the protagonist, and [his or] her insights become part of the way we, too, see the world. Stories instill meaning directly into our belief system the same way experience does—not by telling us what is right or wrong, but by allowing us to feel it ourselves.”

Story Genius, by Lisa Cron. Ten Speed Press, 2016; page 12-13.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

“Two principles control the emotional involvement of an audience. First, empathy: identification with the protagonist that draws us into the story, vicariously rooting for our own desires in life. We must believe . . . we must willingly suspend our disbelief. . . . To do so, the writer must convince us that the world of his story is authentic. We know that storytelling is a ritual surrounding a metaphor for life. To enjoy this ceremony . . . we react to stories as if they’re real. We suspend our cynicism and believe in the tale as long as we find it authentic. The moment it lacks credibility, empathy dissolves and we feel nothing.

“ . . . For the purposes of (story) a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility.”

Story, by Robert McKee. HarperCollins, 1997; page 186

Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies


“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorate. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human beings. In fact, comparing a well-told story to a healthy human being becomes an effective analogy to better understand the interdependency of the parts and the delicate balance of chemistry and biomechanics that allow the body—and a story—to move, to thrive, and to grow. . . .

“Such it is with our stories. There are certain elements that are essential for the story to work. They are not remotely negotiable. . . .”

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. Writer’s Digest Books, 2011, page 15

Story Physics: Harnessing the Underlying Forces of Storytelling


“That last word is a loaded gun pointed at the heart of your manuscript. Your answer exposes you, strips you naked in the light of your story’s commercial and mechanical viability. It tells you what you know, and by its absence, also exposes what you don’t know. . . .

“A story is about a character, a hero . . . [.] A story is about characters doing things . . . . Plot is the stage upon which your characters reveal themselves.”

Story Physics by Larry Brooks. Writer’s Digest Books, 2013; page 101-104

How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling


“If, after you have created your characters, you still do not see them in your mind’s eye walking, talking, breathing, perspiring, you might try a little psychoanalysis. Put them on the couch and talk to them.”

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. St. Martin’s Press, 1987, page 15

The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface

“Skillful authors play against expected feelings. They go down several emotional layers in order to bring up emotions that will catch readers by surprise. There’s always a different emotion to use. A story situation is an emotional elephant. There are many ways of looking at and feeling what’s happening at any given moment. Stop your story at any given moment and ask your point-of-view character what she’s feeling, and it’s never just one answer. Ask two characters what they feel about what’s happening and they will never say the same thing.”

The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass. Writer’s Digest Books, 2016; page 18

Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success)

(Specifically for self-publishers interested in guerilla marketing. Note that this book isn’t primarily about writing, but about selling, but the hints on how to write story elements come in in unique ways.)


“You haven’t lived until you’ve been writing a scene you thought you were in control of, and something happens you never saw coming.

“Our contention is that good storytelling is good because the characterss—not the author—are in charge. Bad storytelling is often a case of the author shoving his or her big nose into the narrative. You can see this happens as a reader, and it’ll clang in your ear like a sour note. Author interference is what makes you shake your head and say: ‘Why would X character do that?’ What follows seems artificial and contrived.”

“Dynamic characters shake things up. The cause chaos. They act autonomously without permission. The is very, very good, because it means that readers will be less likely to predict what’s coming. If you as the author don’t know what exactly will happen, how can a reader?”

Write. Publish. Repeat. By Platt, Truant, and Wright. Realm and Sands, 2013; pages 119-120

Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction

“I remember the first moment terror enchanted me. I was a kindergartner at Crow Elementary School, and in the library one day I pulled off the shelf the book Universal Studios Monsters. I flipped through the pages, studying stills from Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man. I lingered on the image of Lon Chaney Jr., with his fanged underbite, his hoggish nose and shag-carpeting hair, so long that it burned into my memory and haunted me later that night, when I cried out for my parents and could fall asleep only trembling between them. I knew terror—but I also knew the spike of adrenaline that comes with it. The very next day at school I returned to that same corner of the library and cracked the book again, like an addict seeking another hit.”

—Benjamin Percy

I had the same reaction when reading his book on how to write genre . . . that’s also literary.

Grammar and Punctuation

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
  • Karen Elizabeth Gordon (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 176 Pages - 01/01/1993 (Publication Date) - Pantheon Books (Publisher)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
  • Gotham Books
  • Truss, Lynne (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 240 Pages - 04/11/2006 (Publication Date) - Avery (Publisher)
The New Well Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
  • Hardcover Book
  • Gordon, Karen Elizabeth (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 160 Pages - 07/10/1993 (Publication Date) - Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Publisher)

Educator Amy Hall’s on-line workshops for students and professionals. Her message is simple, though, for all writers:”It is impossible to improve one’s writing without a strong understanding of the way the language is structured, through its grammar.”  

Miscellaneous Titles About Words and Phrases

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Bragg, Melvyn (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 411 Pages - 04/01/2011 (Publication Date) - Arcade (Publisher)
Movers and Shakers: A Chronology of Words that Shaped Our Age
  • Hardcover Book
  • Ayto, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 12/04/2006 (Publication Date) - Oxford University Press, USA (Publisher)
Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Blatt, Ben (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 289 Pages - 03/14/2017 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)

Thesaurus / Word Reference Books

Dictionary of Confusable Words
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 261 Pages - 08/21/2013 (Publication Date) - Routledge (Publisher)
Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Blatt, Ben (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 289 Pages - 03/14/2017 (Publication Date) - Simon & Schuster (Publisher)
The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate (Highly Selective Reference)
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Ehrlich, Eugene (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 03/17/2009 (Publication Date) - HarperCollins e-books (Publisher)
Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate (Highly Selective Reference)
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Ehrlich, Eugene (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 224 Pages - 03/17/2009 (Publication Date) - HarperCollins e-books (Publisher)
Homophones and Homographs: An American Dictionary, 4th ed.
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 377 Pages - 11/01/2014 (Publication Date) - McFarland (Publisher)
The Synonym Finder
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Urdang, Laurence (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 1380 Pages - 04/22/2016 (Publication Date) - Rodale Books (Publisher)

Unusual Dictionaries

Dictionary of Cliches(Paperback) - 2010 Edition
  • James T. Rogers (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 11/30/1991 (Publication Date) - Random House USA Inc (Publisher)
How Not To Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms
  • Hardcover Book
  • Holder, R. W. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 410 Pages - 10/08/2007 (Publication Date) - Oxford University Press (Publisher)
Theodora Bryant

Last update on 2021-11-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Your Free Gift!

Your Free Gift!

Self-publishing means keeping track of all the details. Your free checklist will help ensure that your self-publishing efforts are a success.

Subscribe and get it now.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest