One thing I do, and have done, with every edit (at least of a fantasy or science fiction novel or story) since starting at TSR in 1995 is create a word list/style guide. I’ll share my basic template here and encourage everyone to create and maintain this resource. I guarantee it will be a valuable tool not just for you while you finish your story or book—or series, even more so!—but it’s something you not only can but should give to editors and others who will be working with your text.

You might be surprised how often, as an editor, I get manuscripts in which the spelling of even the primary characters’ names change subtly throughout the text. Rules for initial caps and other things can easily end up being more or less randomly applied, too. But a sense of plausibility is often signaled in the subtlest of ways, including the judicious application or careful revision of an exiting rule of grammar and usage that works on a subconscious level so your world just “feels real.” Believe me, you’ll really come to appreciate it when it prevents an editor like me from “fixing” a perceived “mistake” that was an intentional component of your worldbuilding. The word list will warn your editor ahead of time that this was intentional, and not a typo.

Starting at TSR and continuing on to Wizards of the Coast, we maintained a style guide that included world-specific word lists, and one that covered “fantasy” in general as well as D&D terms that were the same from world to world, and that defined our contemporary American style (it’s armor, not armour).

Below is the beginning of my novel or series-specific word list/style guide, with some basic stuff like what country you come from (and yes, it does matter) and how you want to deal with the difference between: I have a bad feeling about this, Galen thought and I have a bad feeling about this, Galen telepathically broadcasted to the rest of the party.

The words on the sample list are actually applicable to any and every fantasy world. You’ll find a lot of them in the dictionary, but you’d still be surprised how often I see authors not just using them improperly but even inconsistently with two or even more versions of the same thing coming up, like warcry, war cry, and war-cry.

But most of all this is the place to lock in the spelling of character names (it’s Galen, not Galan), place names (Hellmount, not Hell Mount), and any other invented words unique to your world (spirit-staff, not spirit staff). You might have a separate invented language, too, so the Martian word for spirit-staff is gliurbex, which you’ll want to italicize throughout, so it should be italicized on your list to indicate that.

Include plurals, too, especially if there’s something weird about them, like djinni (singular) / djinn (plural). Don’t be afraid to address ways you don’t want something spelled, too, like: dwarves (not dwarfs)—or for your book, the other way around!

Anyway, check this out, think about anything that might stand out to you, and by all means feel free to keep it as a guide for your last revision/polish. Some things, like second in command, will not be spotted by a spellcheck. Those are three perfectly fine words and your computer has no idea they should have hyphens in certain specific cases: Bronwyn only spent a second in command of the caravan before the fireball went off… is correct, and so is: Galen regretted agreeing to be Bronwyn’s second-in-command when his face melted off his skull.




Word List/Style Guide

Any word that appears on this list in italics, should always be in italics.

Any word that appears on this list with an Initial Cap or in ALL CAPS, should always have an Initial Cap or be in ALL CAPS.

Direct character thoughts in [roman or italics].

Psychic/magical (etc.) communication in [define style].

English (US, UK, CAN, or AUS).




axe (not ax)

aye aye (not aye-aye, which is a kind of monkey)

battle cry

battle magic










chain mail

demonspawn / demonspawned

djinni (singular) / djinn (plural)


dwarves (not dwarfs)







godsforsaken (in a world with multiple gods!)






hellspawn / hellspawned

lady-in-waiting / ladies-in-waiting

life force

long sword (not longsword)

longbow / longbowman (pl. longbowmen)






man-at-arms / men-at-arms

nock (place an arrow to a bowstring)

plate mail



scry, scried, scrying, scries, scryer, scryers



shapeshift / shapeshifter / shapeshifting

shock wave

short bow

short sword

spell duel


spellcaster / spellcasting


spirit-staff / gliurbex

sword arm

sword belt

sword blade

sword fight

sword point


swordsman / swordsmen / swordsmanship



war cry




Your word list is most important where it varies from obvious sources like the dictionary or the Chicago Manual of Style. Consistency is king in pretty much all things, and is a big part of what will make your fantasy world seem plausible. It says to your readers: I care about this thing I’ve created, and I’ve worked to make it feel real.


—Philip Athans


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Now scheduling projects for October/November 2020.


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, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to A FANTASY WORD LIST

  1. I’m going to share this with lots of people! First off, my critique group. They’re not all spec fiction writers, and they’ve been giving a few members a lot of grief because they don’t understand word usage in the world building of their stories.

    I maintain a spreadsheet that has several tabs with specific information. I’d be in deep trouble without it since I’m now writing book 3 of a trilogy. What color was Adana’s eyes? I just need to look on the Characters tab. What’s the insignia for the different ranks? Check the Traditions & Ranks tab. And so on.

    Essential if you want to stay consistent. But guess what? I don’t have a word list. Time for a new tab!

  2. Dawn Ross says:

    I do something similar to this for my own editing process. Good idea to make a list for my editor, too. Thanks! 🙂

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