Norman Ramsey's Resources for Writers

These resources will help you improve your writing in general and your scientific writing in particular.

You should own a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a usage manual. You should read some style guides but not necessarily own one.


While you can get quite far with a collegiate dictionary, serious writers (and serious readers) will want an unabridged dictionary. Among modern dictionaries, I like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (There was and may still be a free version online at The great classic American unabridged is the Webster's Second International, but it's expensive and old. Avoid the permissive Third International.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary has great entertainment value, but I find it less useful as a resource for the working writer, though the examples can sometimes be helpful to find out how words are used, e.g., with what prepositions.


A thesaurus is an essential tool to help you find the right word. Get Roget form; a dictionary-form thesaurus is useless.

Usage Manuals

This kind of reference tells you what kind of English is correct and what isn't. The best books in this category, like Fowler or Strunk and White, also tell you what is good style.

The Dictionary of Modern English Usage, written by Henry W. Fowler and revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, is the classic by which all other such manuals are measured. Although ostensibly in dictionary format, so you can look up particular points of usage, it is best read cover to cover (a good ten-year project). Try looking up Elegant Variation. You can see reviews at You want the second edition, revised around 1956. Avoid the evil third edition, which is a disgrace and a ripoff. Fowler must be spinning.

If you want a comprehensive usage guide but you feel that a 50-year-old guide to British English is not for you, try Bryan Gardner's guide. I own a copy, and it looks good, but I haven't perused it in depth. (I own two copies of Fowler: one for home and one for the office.)

William Strunk and E. B. White, The elements of style, New York, Macmillan, c1979.

The famous ``little book'' combines information on usage and style. It deserves its popularity.

Lyn Dupre, BUGS in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose is a highly quirky but also useful guide. It's a collection of short segments, each about 3 to 10 pages, that are not otherwise organized, so it's easy to digest. I'm not that wild about this book, but many people love it passionately, and she does do a very good job pointing out errors that computer people commonly make.

Style guides

This kind of reference tells you not so much how to write technically correct prose as how to write good prose.

Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, 2nd. Edition, Harper and Row, New York, circa 1985.

A classic. If you own just one book on writing, this should be it.

Joseph M. Williams Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

An excellent book focusing on algorithms for writing good prose and improving existing prose. Also explains how when and why to use such deprecated constructs as passive voice.

George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan The Science of Scientific Writing, American Scientist,78:550-558, 1990.

Nice short paper on writing. Especially good on word order.

Approaching your writing

Three helpful sources (in alphabetical order):

Avoid Common Mistakes

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