Spell checkers and online dictionaries have made writers’ lives easier, but they’ve also undermined the importance of knowing about language. It’s one thing to know where to put your colons and apostrophes, but knowing why English works the way it does is another. Writers who know their language intimately, as opposed to just using it well, come up with more fluid pieces that get the point across as efficiently as possible. Once in a while, it might help to turn off the spell-check and read up on style, grammar, and usage from established experts.
A staple in most prominent writers’ shelves is Garner’s Modern American Usage. Now on its third edition, the book leans towards suggestions more than rules, giving writers the freedom to stray from the norm as they see fit. Nevertheless, it stays prescriptive and keeps you on the logical track when issues such as the active and passive voice come up.
The Business Writer’s Handbook, published by St. Martin’s Press, is a more recent offering and, despite its title, is actually useful to anyone who writes. Punctuation, word choice, and an array of nitpicky grammar points are discussed in alphabetical order, making it easy to find what you need. There’s also a useful section on formats for letters, reports, and papers.
If you’re just curious about how English works, your first stop should be David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. The book doesn’t offer rules or style guides as much as it shares information. Its approach is descriptive rather than prescriptive; that is, it tells you how people use the language in real life, instead of how other books say they should. The writing is clear and concise, and the examples are witty and entertaining.
Style manuals are also a must, especially if you’re into publishing (the web is a lot more lenient on style, at least for the moment). Long before newspapers went online, journalists consulted the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. Budding writers were referred to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, which mostly condensed major ideas from the Chicago manual. Your choice depends on the publication you write for or want to get published in. If you’re not sure, the Chicago manual is your best bet, as it’s the overwhelming standard in U.S. publishing.
Good writing is the result of practice more than anything, so no text can really take the place of doing the dirty work. But there’s nothing wrong with having a book or two on hand—at the very least, it’ll make your writing more consistent and effortless, and give you more confidence when you’re faced with style decisions.