The writer’s bookshelf refers to the handful of reference books that every writer should have on hand to refer to as and when required. Although books are not gadgets (unless you happen to read them on a Kindle E-Reader or similar device, which is not ideal for reference books) they can certainly be described as essential tools and so we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t cover this subject at least briefly.
The first book that every writer needs is a good dictionary. Although almost all modern word processing applications have a rudimentary spell-checker built-in, a traditional dictionary is still essential because it offers a lot more than the correct spelling of a word. A good dictionary provides the various definitions that a word can have, it may highlight the origin of the word and it should also give the proper pronunciation of the word. This latter point is particularly important for writers of fiction – whether poetry, short stories, novels or screenplays – because it helps one to be mindful of things like rhythm and pacing.
When choosing a dictionary it is important to strike a practical balance between the number of words defined and the ease with which it can be used. A multi-volume dictionary can obviously define many more words than a single volume, but they aren’t particularly convenient to use without breaking the flow of concentration, so a large single-volume dictionary is more useful in my opinion. For American writers, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is highly recommended, whilst British writers will probably find Collins English Dictionary more suitable.
Hot on the heels of the dictionary is the thesaurus. This is useful for finding alternative words to get your point across, and in some cases the thesaurus will also provide synonyms and antonyms. Any writer who is in the habit of using the same words repeatedly (and most of us are!) can use a thesaurus to come up with various alternatives and thereby improve their text for both our editors and the public. Although you may well consult a thesaurus less often than you do your dictionary, it is still worth investing in a quality volume. After all, language doesn’t evolve at anything approaching the rate of technology and gadgetry, so a well-chosen thesaurus (such as Merriam-Webster in the USA or Collins in the UK) will easily serve you well for at least a decade or two and, in many instances, a lifetime.
My third essential book for writers is the yearbook which provides up to date information about the needs of various publishing houses and magazines as well as their contact details. There are several yearbooks available and most of them focus on a single country, so if you are in the UK you would probably be interested in The Writers’ & Artists Yearbook and if you are in the USA you are more likely to want a copy of Writer’s Market. The nature of the yearbook means that you should buy yourself the latest edition as soon as it is published, but the tiny investment involved here pales in comparison with the time you save when looking for the most appropriate company to submit to. And, of course, selling even one piece of work will cover the cost of the yearbook and more besides.
There are other books that you can add to your own writers bookshelf depending on your unique needs and the type of writing that you do, but the dictionary, thesaurus and yearbook belong on the shelf of every serious writer. Even better, investing in this minimalist writer’s bookshelf will motivate you to improve your writing, increase your output and – hopefully – achieve more success as a result.