On the writer’s desk…

Recently, I lamented the sad, but understandable fact, that hard copy reference books, like the Dictionary and Thesaurus are becoming as extinct as ashtrays on the desks of today’s writer. The electronic medium has consumed these books alive, and I have got to confess that I too turn to internet search engines for precise word meanings and spellings. Although in my home office, I still have a four inch thick copy of Webster’s taking up shelf space, my office at the “place-where-I-go-to-make-money-writing” holds no such tome.

On my first day, on my first job, as a Technical Writer (more years ago than I like to admit), I received a very fine dictionary from The Company that hired me. It came packed in a large box of supplies that were handed out to new employees. It was packed  along with an assortment of pens of various colors (primarily red), a tightly bound pack of yellow legal pads, and an Xacto knife (for stripping line drawings into galley copy). There was also an ashtray, a very large ashtray with the seal of the U.S. Department of the Army embossed upon it. The ashtray was, of course, every bit as necessary as the dictionary as the very nature of the work (long hours pouring over electronic schematic diagrams and disseminating the intricacies of circuit flow onto the long legal pads), practically required a Technical Writer to burn through 20 to 40 cigarettes within the course of an 8 to 10 hour day – or so it seemed.

Today, thankfully the ashtrays are gone, the air is breathable, but the reference books are gone as well. So what is on my writer’s desk? On my desk, only four volumes remain. I thought that I might detail them here:

1. “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. While this book has been around for over forty five years, I have shelved my previous editions in favor of the Penguin Press illustrated version (2005). This book is a necessity for anyone who writes more than their name on a check. I have found this book to be indispensable, my favorite chapter being the “Approach to Style” chapter. Here you’ll find advice on topics like: how to “write in a way that comes naturally”, “revise and rewrite”, “do not overwrite”, and “do not overstate”.

2. “The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers, Fifth Edition” by John J. Ruszkiewicz; Christy Friend; Maxine Hairston. Upgrade to a newer version if you want, but this version has served me well, and the good stuff doesn’t change much anyway. With just short of 1000 pages stuffed into a one inch spine, this brick of a book contains damn near everything you need to write like a real frigging professional. You will probably not find a more comprehensive (to the point of being exhaustive), book on the mechanics and rules of writing anywhere. The art of writing a draft, how to revise, edit, and proofread, sentence structure, grammar, how to begin a research project, it’s all here.

3. “Between You and I – a little book of bad english” by John Cochrane. This little volume was given to me by a friend (possibly one who thought I could use it). It has remained on my writer’s desk for several years now, and is the most entertaining, useful book about word usage that I have ever discovered. The book contains an Author’s Preface, followed by a Foreword by British radio journalist, John Humphries. From there the book takes off on an alphabetical listing of some of the most likely misused, misunderstood, and most often massacred words in the English language. Anyone interested in resuscitating what is left of the language should pick up a copy.

4.  “Ernest Hemingway on Writing” edited by Larry W. Phillips. Like “Hemingway on Hunting” and “Hemingway on Fishing”, and who knows what others, this book was probably manufactured to wring a few more dollars from this literary icon’s name. Still, the book offers some of the best and most inspirational writing antidotes to be found anywhere.  Starting with “What writing is and what it does”, this book contains Papa’s sage advice to all writers on such perpetually important topics as what to write about, work habits, proper use of obscenity, thoughts on other writers, and politics. What more do you need to know.

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

-Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Maxwell Perkins 1945

That’s all for today,



One thought on “On the writer’s desk…

  1. Well, it is obvious that so many things are changing…it’s probably like folks who now use Kindles or nooks…..I can’t quite bring myself to make the switch…I guess it’s “the feel’ of a Real book that has its allure….It is probably also a byproduct of aging (though I hate to admit it)…I think one gets a little ‘nostalgic’ about things that were prevalent “back in the day”. Like a kind of “badge of honor” to have done things “old school”…Sometimes new-fangled isn’t “all that” (as they say)…As always…there’s a lot of picking and choosing. While I don’t want to have my head in the sand and seem like an “old fogie(???)” I don’t like to embrace “the new” just because it is…’Discriminating ‘might capture what I am trying to say….

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