From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.


I’ve been reading a lot lately, which I discussed last week, and over the past year have read books old and new, in and out of various genres, from publishers large and small and American and British, and I have been confronted time and again with what I think is a really disturbing trend: People just aren’t editing anymore.

All the time I was at Wizards of the Coast, it felt as though I was constantly fending off non-specific complaints about the perceived low quality of our books. Now, we published a lot of books during my time there, and I honestly can’t say that every single one was a perfectly polished literary jewel. I can go through copies of the books I edited myself and point out mistakes that make me cringe just thinking about them—even fifteen years later.

But even though I’ve spent half a year not having to fend that off anymore, I still stand behind the body of work, and the skills of both authors and editors. The lion’s share of those “but your books really suck, though, don’t they?” assertions was just plain prejudice, and time and again when someone came to me with, “I read [insert title of book I worked on here] and it was full of mistakes,” the complainant couldn’t actually point to a single specific mistake, even when I pinned the complainant down, which I did whenever I could. You need to do that with complainants.

When I came to work at the book department of TSR, Inc. in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, I was just smart enough to pay attention and listen to veteran editor Bill Larson, who, whether he knew it, liked it, or not, became my copy editing mentor. Even a decade and a half later, I won’t pretend to a fraction of his mastery of the language, but enough rubbed off that I’ve earned a solid confidence in that part of my former job.

At TSR, thanks in large part to Bill, there were very strict rules not just in the handling of raw text, but in the increasingly lost art of typography. Another TSR alum, Angie Lokotz, typesetter to the stars, reinforced and helped maintain a style guide that I doubt would be recognizable to more than a handful of editors currently plying their trade, even in the big New York houses, who you’d think would know better.

I started thinking this post would be a primer on some of those rules for word breaks, stacks, widows and orphans, and so on, a paean to a time when quality of presentation mattered, but I didn’t want to begin the year on a whiny sort of “you’re not as good/smart/caring as me” note.

You know me. I like to keep it positive.

Stop laughing.

So rather than out editors I might want to work with one day for careless orphans, beat up a potential employer/client for dropped ligatures, or take one of the best selling books in the history of modern publishing to task for missing folios, I thought it better to recommend some essential reference books that no author or editor should be without. All of the other books I’ve recommended here are just that: recommendations. In the case of these three books, though, consider it an order, a moral imperative. You simply must have these non-optional tools, which are as important to you and your writing as a computer and your brain. If you have a bookstore gift card burning a hole in your post-holiday pocket, buy them. If you’re broke and writing your novel J.K. Rowling-style on used napkins, steal them. I don’t care how you do it, you must have these books.

The Chicago Manual of Style

I’ve had a few authors tell me, “I don’t always agree with Chicago,” and what I really hear when someone says that is, “I thought I knew the rule, was wrong, and don’t want to admit it or change my bad habits.”

English is a living language, and rules can change on you, and certain things are open to interpretation, but that’s actually lots more rare than most people think. There really are rules to the language, and choosing to break them for effect is one thing, not knowing them in the first place, not caring enough to learn them, is another thing entirely. And that other thing is rank laziness.

The 15th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style

What The Chicago Manual of Style provides are the hard and fast rules of grammar and sentence structure, but what I value it for most are those obscure rules of capitalization, hyphenation, and so on that are just indispensible. If you’re out there thinking, “I write fantasy, I can make up my own rules for what gets capitalized when and why,” well, my answer is this:

Okay, but why? Why create a rule, which (believe it or not) a majority of readers will—even if it’s just subconsciously—identify as a mistake when you can apply the same rule to the fantasy rank of “guardmaster” as you would the real-world military rank of “corporal”?

Another thing Chicago will do for you is tell you whether or not the question mark at the end of the last sentence belonged inside or outside the quotation marks. (That’s 5.10, page 134 of the 15th Edition.)

This, like the other two books we’ll discuss today, isn’t the kind of book you sit down and read cover-to-cover, unless you’re a particularly crazed logophile, and it can be a bit of a challenge learning how to navigate its index, but you just have to have it, you have to use it, and you have to believe it.

You may want to check out the handy online version. I still use the 15th Edition, though the 16th is now available. You can find the 15th at used books stores, I’m sure. Better that than none.

Words into Type

Here’s one a lot of people haven’t even heard of, and I think that’s why contemporary books are so poorly typeset. Though it’s a sort of poor cousin style manual to Chicago, what makes Words into Type an invaluable resource is its concentration on the printed word. I have an old copy of the Third Edition, which appears to be the still-current iteration.

Words into Type

More so than Chicago, Words into Type is a fantastic resource for bringing an air of legitimacy to invented terms in SF and fantasy. Just opening to the spread of pages 166 and 167, we find rules for whether or not you should capitalize the names of the twenty-four great soil groups (you should) through whether or not you capitalize the v in Ludwig von Beethoven (you don’t).

A familiarity with Words into Type will also help you “talk the talk” with editors and publishing people. I know, I know, the wonderful e-book revolution is rendering all this stuff obsolete. If you believe that, you’re dooming yourself and your audience to a very ugly, utilitarian, unreadable future. The better quality e-readers are getting better at mimicking real books, and the future is not in unedited, raw-text Epub files.

And if it is, man, you can count me out. I’ll wait for the vinyl . . . I mean, paper.

Garner’s Modern American Usage

Formerly A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, is the American English version of the venerable Fowler’s, and I think it’s a superior text. If you’re reading this from the UK or a Commonwealth country, go ahead and buy Fowler’s—it’ll do all the same things for you, just in your accent.

Garner's Modern American Usage

I hope the fact that I’ve gone this far without saying it means it goes without saying that every author needs a good dictionary and a thesaurus. Choose your dictionary based on your love of the language, your nation of origin, your pocketbook . . . I have a widget on my computer that’s as good a dictionary as some I’ve paid close to $100 for. There are free online dictionaries—knock yourself out.

But what a lot of people—I daresay almost everyone—doesn’t know about dictionaries is that they’re really all just big lists of words with definitions, but rarely if ever do they offer advice on how to actually use those words. That’s where Mr. Garner comes in.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to this book to prove a point. One of my very first posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook, for instance, called on Mr. Garner to prove that it’s okay to start a sentence with the words and or but.

When do you use the word expound and when should it be propound?

Is it decision-making or decisionmaking?

Is the plural of soprano soprani or sopranos?

Garner tells you.

Listen to him.

Bryan A. Garner

Thanks to Garner, I know that the James Bond movie was about more than one quanta of Solace, though I’m still not sure what the title means.

Of the three, this one is the most fun to read. Mr. Garner can be snarky as all get out, and in a gloriously smug way that’ll make him one of your favorite curmudgeonly English teachers.


There it is, people, three books you have no choice but to have at hand.

So let it be written. So let it be done.


—Philip Athans







About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Julia Martin says:

    The 16th edition of Chicago is much better than the 15th. I’d highly recommend moving over to that one. It deals much better with the needs of the Internet era.

  2. Cam Rawls says:

    I’m reading Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English [third edition] by Patricia T. O’Conner and I can tell that it will come in handy during revisions and line edits for my YA novel (or any writing for that matter).

    Looking back at that sentence, I’m glad that it was typed rather than spoken.

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  9. Micah says:

    I’m Bill’s grandkid and your quote “I was just smart enough to pay attention and listen to veteran editor Bill Larson, who, whether he knew it, liked it, or not, became my copy editing mentor.” really does sum up a lot of his personality 😂.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I really did learn more about how to do the job I’ve been doing my entire adult life from him than anyone else. Just a great guy, too. A good man.

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