5 essential websites for writers, plus 1 semi-evil one

Does the Farmer’s Almanac say the PANSTARRS comet will sizzle or fizzle? What was the weather like in Atlanta, Georgia on July 2, 1954? Is Pope Benedict XVI’s title emeritus or emeriti? Will an asyndeton offer a good way to hammer a point in your writing? Is there a better word for hammer?

Writers need answers. Quickly. Here are five sites that will get you what you need, plus one that is a sort of necessary evil.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

dictionary

You never know how people will react to a small mistake, but you do know that no one will ever object to correct, accurate, proper English.

Need to confirm a definition, spelling or usage? Merriam-Webster.com. Handy. Reliable. Authoritative. And, it’s well beyond the scope of spelling and grammar checks embedded in certain software. Enough said.

2. Thesaurus

Yes, writers should have a large personal vocabulary but we needn’t pretend we know everything. One of my favorite English professors—a man who could work words like opuscule, ennui and non sequitur into a one-minute hallway conversation without even the slightest hint of bravado—kept a well-worn thesaurus by his side for all his serious writing.

He always said he owed it to his readers.

I think thesaurus.com, which calls itself “the largest and most trusted free online thesaurus,” is great; or should I say remarkable, comprehensive or impressive?

3. The Library of Congress

LOC

Need to know if Shakespeare really used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus? Or how frequently reports on Principal Federal Economic Indicators occur? Want to report on when and where to look for this year’s comets?

This is not your father’s Library of Congress. Today you can use the virtual reference shelf that includes the answers to all of the above, plus a myriad of digital collections, bibliographies and guides. Also, you can ask a real librarian a question in an online chat.

4. Bartleby

Perhaps more 20th century than 21st, this site gives free and complete access to encyclopedias and other reference books that can help writers. Among the most useful are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a searchable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Gray’s Anatomy. No, not the popular TV drama, but the actual 1918 classic publication complete with 1,247 vibrant engravings. Admittedly, you could probably find all of this stuff on at the Library of Congress site, but this one is easier to navigate.

5. Grammar Girl

Inevitably, all writers—even those who merely write something as innocuous as a yearly budget report—come up against someone with Grammar Pedantry Syndrome. First identified by Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, Grammar Pedantry Syndrome (GPS) is a form of Obsessive Compulsive/Oppositional Defiant Disorder in which sufferers need to correct every grammatical error, real or imagined.

Baron wrote in his June 2012 The Web of Language blog:

GPS goes a long way towards finding, explaining, and helping us deal with, their obsession with enforcing on the hapless public an idiosyncratic and often undertheorized idea of what’s right or wrong in speech and writing. If defining this kind of intrusive purism as a psychological syndrome helps us find a cure, then ultimately both society, and language itself, stands to benefit. Or is it that they stand to benefit?

Sadly, at least 10 highly followed Twitter accounts failed to penetrate the academic humor in the above, all of which I learned from reading Grammar Girl.

Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl and founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Prior to becoming the curator for a site devoted to grammar, she was a magazine and technical writer.

In case you ever thought you might be able to rely on your own knowledge of grammar to get by with your writing, the “GPS” business cited above should make the dangers in that exceedingly obvious. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people who think they know a lot more than they do. You need a reliable reference.

I like Grammar Girl because it is funny and smart. There are others. But you need to have one very handy.

Wikipedia: the semi- evil one

I know Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate resource, but it can be a starting point. It’s a good place to get some basic background information to prep for interviews. For example, it can help you construct the right questions to bring your source’s information down to layman’s terms. It can also point you to good references.

A Final Word
Salient details enliven your writing, surprise your reader and make what you write worth sharing or remembering. In addition to that, being accurate and grammatically correct is in fact how you will be judged, no matter how great a writer you claim to be.

Lucky for us, all that can be just a click away.

Writing for the web: 10 things to love about it

Using the same kind of writing style for the web as you would for a traditional medium would be a lot like producing a radio program for the Big Screen. Or recreating a movie on an etch-a-sketch. Or painting a QR code on the back of a bus. Or setting up a Skype account for your cat.

cobyjack

Well, you get the idea.

Different mediums have different strengths. And the web is a medium where you can be more informal and have some fun. What’s not to love about that?

So here, in no particular order, are just 10 of the things web writers should appreciate:

  1. You can be funny, have a little verve, show a little leg. It may not be appropriate every time, but some personality can work wonders, especially with a dry subject.
  2. Not only can you use a conversational tone, you can switch into direct dialogue. Yeah, that means you can make smart little side comments like this. Brilliant, eh?
  3. Short works.
  4. As do numbered lists. Or bullets.
  5. And you aren’t limited to words and graphics. Got a podcast or a video? Want to ask a question? You can do it with multimedia. Like this:


  6. Your audience can talk back to you. They can share your stuff, “like” you, subscribe, flame you or use your comments section to try to sell soap. (Please, don’t do those last two though.) Whatever the case, you get some feedback. With a little testing that can mean better engagement with your audience.
  7. Make a mistake? Well, at least you can change it the minute you find out.
  8. You get instant metrics! You can know how many people looked at something, and for how long, whether they clicked through and etc. It really is a marketing paradise.
  9. Get a great new idea? You can add new content as it comes to light.
  10. All this and its free! Well, sort of. You’ve got to have a computer, electricity and a connection. Graphic content and a photography budget is nice. Of course you probably want to get paid. But a lot of the production costs may be already bought and paid for.

What did I miss? What do you love about writing for the web?