Seven books you should have on your desktop (and three you should read)
Reference books? Pah! Who needs ’em! Everything’s on the net these days, isn’t it?
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. True, there’s an awful of there there. Trouble is, when it comes to spelling, synonyms, antonyms and other word usage – the basic tools of our trade – a lot of it is contradictory. For everyone online who reckons it’s OK to split an infinitive, you’ll find someone who is vehemently against such barbarism. In London, is it Regent’s Park or Regents Park? Is it installment or instalment? Before you know it you’re suffering from googlexia, a condition of paralysing bafflement that’s the cerebral equivalent of the spinning eggtimer or beachball your computer shows when it’s offered the choice of a spade and a rake and told to take its pick.
Better to have an authoritative and widely respected tome on hand that brooks no argument – either within arm’s reach on your desk or, in the case of dictionaries, loaded into your PC as part of its operating system (as the New Oxford American Dictionary is on the Mac).
Here’s a wildly subjective list of essential books every journalist (and by extension writer and editor) should have, plus three that are worth reading. It is necessarily UK-centric, because that’s where I am, but I beg the international readers’ indulgence to modify this advice according to their own geographical and linguistic needs.
One proviso: the advice given in these books must be subject to the quirks of any style guide and editor or proprietor’s whim for whatever publication or website you may be working. For instance, for years staff on the Chicago Tribune used nite for tonight and frate for freight. They had no choice: that was the order from the owner, Colonel Robert R McCormick, who after all signed their pay cheques. And that’s an argument you can’t brook.
1. A really, really good dictionary.
Here’s a case where brand name shopping matters. Whether your choice is the mighty OED or a compact Collins, the venerable Merriam Webster or the (relatively) upstart American Heritage, make your choice and stick with it. There’s a reason why these dictionaries are best sellers: they’re all well researched, widely respected and have withstood the often-violent vicissitudes that occasionally pound English usage. Leave the debate over prescriptive (tells you how words should be used) vs descriptive (tells you how words are actually used) to those saddos who think that debate worth getting het up about: most good dictionaries are a bit of both anyway.
2. An equally good thesaurus.
Roget’s is the big/large/sizable/substantial/Brobdingnagian name here, but I doubt I’m not alone in thinking its method of presentation is unintituitive when you’re in a hurry. If you prefer a dictionary-style thesaurus there are plenty available, but once again, go for a name brand. If you’re in the market for a good dictionary and thesaurus, look out for 2-for-1 or similar deals or consider a dictionary that incorporates a thesaurus, such as Collins.
3. A book of quotations.
Essential kit for feature writers and sub/copy editors, particularly those like me who are keen on giving well-known quotes a topical twist to fit the job in hand. Also good to have on hand to check whether that quote you’re quoting was actually what was said, and said by the person you say it was. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations includes handy sections on well-known slogans, from the warmly nostalgic (“Go to work on an egg”) to the chillingly evocative (“Arbeit macht frei”) and whence they derive, as well as popular misquotations (no, Jimmy Cagney never said “You dirty rat!”).
4. A gazetteer/place name dictionary.
How wide-ranging this needs to be depends on your circumstances, but if your work in mostly concentrated within a certain geographical sphere such as a major city, it is best to get a gazetteer that concentrates on just that. For years while I was working on local newspapers in London, I used the Oxford Dictionary of London Place Names, which readily settled those Regent’s Park/Regents Park and Earls Court/Earl’s Court quandaries. It also provides other useful information such as the derivation of the name, which is handy if stuck for an intro idea for a feature based on a specific area. A gazetteer that provided information on population, educational or medical facilities or major employers might well prove equally useful. Outside a specific, small geographic area, you are likely to fall on the net, but again, the same rule as for dictionaries applies: use a respected, unimpeachable source. For UK place names, I’d use Ordnance Survey; for the US, I’d use the US Board on Geographic Names. Other countries no doubt have their equivalents. For the wider world, the CIA fact book will give you names and information of specific regions, cities and major towns, plus other useful information.
5. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr & E B White
Talk about the best things coming in small packages. Others swear by the Fowlers, others by Gower, but for a succinct, readable distillation of English and how she should be wrote, this is a slam-dunk little beauty. The perfect marriage between a respected grammarian (Strunk) and an accomplished prose stylist (White), this little gem has easily withstood time and its advice is as pertinent and applicable today as it was when it was first published in the 1930s. How good is it? Well, I reckon I’m on about my fifth or sixth copy since I was introduced to it in my journalism course way back then (not the 1930s, I hasten to add). Those copies that hadn’t fallen apart from use had been lent to others and never returned.
6. Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson
Those who know the American Bryson mainly for his entertaining travel books (Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island etc) or his bestselling science primer A Short History of Nearly Everything may be surprised to learn of his background as a jobbing sub-editor on UK newspapers, from small provincials to the heady heights of Fleet Street. During that time he obviously noted and squirreled away recurrences of misspellings, misuses, clichés and other problematic pitfalls of everyday, written English. These are all neatly collected in easily-referenced dictionary form here: the difference between flaunt and flout, when you should use compared to and compared from and why journalists should have beaten into their brains that it’s nerve-racking, not nerve-wracking. Not everyone will agree with Bryson’s prescriptions and he often seems to be fighting a rearguard action against some usages, but where he scores is that he covers a lot which will probably not be covered in any style guide you may be laboured with, but also that, given his background, he is well-placed to point out differences between British and American use.
7. Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers, by Harold Evans
The former editor of the Sunday Times during its glory years of the 60s and 70s dissects and lays open the innards of what makes a good news or feature story with surgical precision. From writing a snappy and/or alluring intro, on to how to structure the following paragraphs of the lead, through to how the rest of the story should fall and working in background: it’s all laid out in irresistibly lucid fashion. There are handy lists of wasteful wordings, redundant phrases and clichés, and for sub-editors there’s an excellent chapter on headlines – the various types, when to use them and pitfalls to avoid.
Three for the bookshelf…
1. Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss
Former Times sports writer Truss’s unexpected best-selling polemic against misuse of punctuation, particularly the poor abused apostrophe, contains nothing which isn’t already covered in the above titles (particularly Strunk & White), but it’s a rollicking read, which you can’t say about many books on grammar. Unashamedly prescriptive, it has a lot of good advice, but its format makes it useless as a desktop reference book – there’s no index, for instance.
2. Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre
Goldacre is a GP and a journalist. He loves scientists, particularly doctors, and hates journalists. The latter, he reckons, are lazy, feckless purveyors of churnalism, too easily suckered in by any passing medical quack, charlatan and new age ne’er-do-well with an interesting press release. That his own journalism consists mainly of writing a weekly column for the Guardian (at home), uploading to his own website (at home) and penning the occasional op-ed piece on medicine (at home), I guess he doesn’t get into the workaday world of journalism to witness the increased pressure journos face at a time of heavier workloads and shrinking staff levels. That said, he has a point that most journos come from the liberal arts side of the educational spectrum, and the lack of a solid scientific bedrock in many media outlets shows. Hence the case studies he presents here, when bad science was given free rein, thanks to the oxygen of publicity provided by the media and the vigorous fanning by ambitious politicians. Topics include homeopathy, the MMR vaccine scandal, new age remedies such as crystals, ear candles and the like, plus “gurus” such as “Dr” Gillian McKeith and “Professor” Patrick Holford. Provides a good grounding of valid scientific methods for the ignorant and uninitiated, which would probably include most journalists.
3. The Tiger That Isn’t, by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot
What Bad Science does for medicine, The Tiger… does for statistics. An excellent guide to those facts and figures which regularly make up the meat and potatoes of much media output, this an excellent, entertaining primer on number crunching for the innumerate among us. It goes into how statistics are gathered (and the benefits and pitfalls of the various methods of doing so), how they should be interpreted, but how they are often skewered, cherry-picked or just plain pummelled either through ignorance or malicious intent.