Writing, as with any job, takes work, and good writing requires preparation. Having the right set of tools is just as important for writers as it is for any tradesman, and as a writer’s tools are mostly mental, it is incumbent upon him to keep his tools sharp and accurate. Thus, he should be honing and perfecting his craft constantly, and I have found that having ready access to a nice selection of writing resources can be profoundly helpful to that end. Over the years I have accumulated a good many resources I wish I’d had at the outset. Here are some of the better ones I’ve discovered. Please note that this page will be added to as new resources become available and/or as I become aware of them, so this is in no way a complete or fixed list. These links are provided in subgroups for related sites but are otherwise not listed in any particular order. I hope this list makes life for other aspiring writers (or even established writers) out there just a little bit easier.
Word Origins (Etymology)
If you are a writer of fantasy fiction in particular (though really all writers can potentially benefit), knowing the origins of words and word parts can be immensely helpful in the world-building process. Here are some that I think should be in every writer’s resource stable. Some of these are general etymology sites; others are more specific, but all have been useful to me at some point.
Online Etymology Dictionary – An all-around good general resource for researching the etymology of words, with a search function for easy use. This one is endlessly helpful for fantasy writers, especially those who wish to use unusual or foreign words, a good thing to do to give your invented world that exotic flavor that both helps set it apart from the mundane and lends it verisimilitude.
Clichés and Expressions Origins – Misuse of colloquial expressions are all too common in historical fiction. It’s great to use era-appropriate expressions, but you had better be sure you understand what they mean before you toss them in! Here’s a nice list of common clichés and sayings and a short history behind them. By no means comprehensive but certainly a solid list.
Wordorigins.org – Excellent resource run by Dave Wilson. Wilson doesn’t just give you the perfunctory information; he writes short but thoroughly detailed articles on the origins of words and phrases, with special attention to neologisms and popular colloquialisms.
Explore English Words Derived from Latin-Greek Origins – Although the base language is Germanic, a great many English words and word parts derive from either Greek or Latin origins. Good to know if you like to use a lot of complex, oddball or occupation-related words in your fiction, as I do.
PrefixSuffix.com – Excellent site with the origins of Latin, Greek and other language word roots, a word root search engine and root chart, a guide for creating new words, and more.
Focusing on Words – A wonderfully designed site. A focus on words in a literary context, nicely written articles and a visually appealing layout put this one a notch or two above most other etymology sites.
Languagehat – Another beautifully designed and well-organized etymology site. Check this one regularly!
Pandora Word Box – Devoted to the etymology of medical words and terminology, this is a great resource if you’re writing something medically related.
The Phrase Finder – Contains the origins and meanings of thousands of common phrases, including Shakespearean, Biblical and nautical phrases! There’s also a forum where one can submit phrases for review by others. As this is based in the UK, the focus here is on British English, but there’s a section on Americanisms, and there’s enough overlap to make it worthwhile site for Americans to explore as well.
Expressions & Sayings – A solid list of common expressions with the entire index on one page, so the index page is usefully searchable with your browser’s ‘find text’ feature.
ipl2 Word and Phrase Origins – Not only does this site have a built-in search engine, it contains links to an assortment of other etymology sites.
Word Spy – A great site for researching neologisms as well as popular older words and phrases. Outstanding!
Most of those links are found at this site, and there are many more there not listed here. I tried to select the ones most useful to me, but do explore as there may be others that you may find more to your liking.
Here are a few name-meaning sites. ‘And why would I want or need to know what names mean?’ you may wonder. Well, I can give you two good reasons, though there are likely plenty more. First, if you’re writing historical fiction, even if it’s fantasy-based history, it’s good to know that names originally meant something in application. For example, most British and European surnames at one time described either the occupation or the place of origin for those who bore them, and the further you go back the more important that information becomes because you are getting closer to the roots of those name origins. Second, there is often symbolic value in names, and even if your readers are not overtly aware of it (which is quite often the case), the unconscious symbolic resonance can still give the names power.
Anyway, there are a ton of these out there, usually geared towards giving parents name suggestions for their new babies, but I sometimes find them useful for giving characters symbolically meaningful names. Here are a few of the better ones:
And along the same lines, here is a website devoted to rendering the names of places on maps and atlases into their base meanings. A clever idea well executed–informative and fun!
Foreign Languages and Translations
At some point your story may require a bit of non-English text or references to works or other things in another (non-English) language. There are a few resources out there to help, but most of them will cost you a good deal of money, something not all of us have. Even so, there are a handful of decent resources online that don’t require you to shell out gobs of cash.
Yes, most people probably already know about those, but I’m putting them up anyway for those who don’t, or for those who would like to bookmark this page so they don’t have to have a gazillion bookmarks just for writing resources. Seriously, that gets pretty old after awhile. Indeed, part of the reason I decided to compile this list of resources here was to seriously trim back all the bookmarks cluttering up my own bookmarks folder. Now when I or anyone else sit down to write, we can just open this page and all of the links are here under one digital roof.
A word about online translators. If you don’t already know, they are far from perfect. There are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll enumerate one. Words in any language can have more than one meaning, and some can have many, so what you often get with an unintuitive computerized translator is an approximation or a base meaning for a word, which can be all wrong when translated in medias res. Note that context is important in many cases, especially with words that have a broad range of meanings, as many do in languages that aren’t as precise as English tends to be.
So, if you’re intending to use a translation site to render something into a foreign tongue so that your native character seems more authentic, you’re probably just going to make yourself look foolish. Really, if you want to do something like that you’re much better off seeking out someone who speaks both that language and English fluently–say, someone who does translation for a living–and having that person do the work for you. What applications like the Bing Translator are good for is providing broad translations that can point you in the right direction. With some thorough research on several sites you may even be able to find both terms or phrases similar to yours and the proper grammatical construction to allow you to do some very basic translation.
Also, searching the same words or phrases in a variety of languages can give one a better understanding of the origins of those words, and as already demonstrated above, that knowledge in itself can be quite useful.
But what if you already know what the non-English text you want to write means but need quick access to those characters you don’t have on your keyboard? Well then, you can always go to the following site, which has not only character sets not found on the traditional English language keyboards but also sets for mathematics, currencies and unusual symbols. Please note that it basically only contains language sets with Roman characters or variations thereof (e.g. the Cyrillic alphabet) and not sets with completely unrelated characters like those in the Chinese or Arabic alphabet. There’s also a complete set of IPA characters if you need those for some reason.
Be aware too that if you do your writing in Word, it has its own set of symbols and other characters available, and it’s much more extensive than you’ll find at TypeIt. But the website is notable for its speed and ease of use.
Word/Text Search Databases
The Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) – This is a fairly new resource, but I can tell you unequivocally that this was the single most helpful resource I had while working on my short story The Great Beast Watches from a Well of Stars, a sci-fi tinged tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. Being a Poe tribute, the story is set in the early 1800s. In fact, although not altogether specifically identified in the text, I set the story within a specific span of days, months and year which a fairly tenacious detective could determine via thorough research. I mention this here because some of the historical detail is verifiable at COHA, and that is one of its uses.
However, the primary function of COHA is for researchers to examine a large database of digitized American texts, both fiction and nonfiction, to study the occurrence and usage of certain words and phrases over time. If you are at all interested in historical accuracy in your writing, then you can easily see how immensely useful such a resource can be to a writer. Worried that particular word or concept you just stuck in your Civil War novel is anachronistic? No problem–just stick the words in the search engine for the site for the decade 1860s and see if it occurs anywhere in the text, and if it does, check to see where and how it is used. Brilliant!
And as I said, it can also be used to search out historical events for the sake of important details (like the occurrence of yellow fever in New Orleans, a detail of some slight import in the above story). This site is of course USA specific, but I assume there may be similar sites for other countries out there now. If I come across any for the other Anglophone countries I will certainly include those here as well. Moreover, as with any resource, it isn’t foolproof. Just because your word or phrase doesn’t appear in the text for your decade or year(s) doesn’t mean it absolutely didn’t occur in speech or writing at the time; it could be simply that none of the texts so far added to COHA included that precise combination of words. But it’s a pretty good measuring stick nonetheless, and if the words or phrases you’re looking for do occur therein–and quite often they do–then you have positive confirmation of their use in the time period.
A couple more points here about COHA: First, there are monthly threshold limits for lay users, but the threshold is extremely liberal and there’s little chance you will ever max out if you’re just using the site for historic authentication. I used the site extensively while writing The Great Beast and never came anywhere close to reaching the threshold. Second, some of the database’s functions are tricky to learn. I really haven’t learned all of its ins and outs yet, but all I’ve found useful so far anyway was the simple decade-specific searches, which the site explains pretty well how to do. The other functions of the site seem to be geared more towards researchers looking to gather and collate data and such and aren’t likely to be of much use to fiction writers. Nonfiction writers, however, might very well benefit from those functions.
Oxford Dictionaries – This is the free US edition of the famous Oxford Dictionary. Certainly not as comprehensive as the full version but useful enough in its own right. Dictionary websites are a dime a dozen, but this is one of the best and offers more than just a database of words and definitions (e.g. the site’s guide to better writing).
Thesaurus.com – It’s been said–and I’m paraphrasing here–that a good dictionary and a good thesaurus are a writer’s two best friends. And how! I got my first thesaurus when I was about 12 or 13 and have never been without one since. But now, with the explosion of online resources, there is simply no excuse for a writer not to have one at the ready. I find that Thesaurus.com is one of the best ones available on the web.
More Words – Search Dictionary – If your looking for a specific word that’s, say, four letters long and ends in ‘k’ or holds a certain combination of letters, then this site is your best bet. Although likely of more use to poets and crossword aficionados than prose writers, I have certainly used it a time or two, so I know it can potentially be valuable to any writer. For example, sometimes you just need a word with a certain sound (it happens) but can’t think of any good ones. Well, this can help!
Word Hippo – Sort of a multipurpose word search tool, this site has a little of everything: names, translations, a word search, a standard and a rhyming dictionary, a thesaurus, etc. There are probably better sites out there for each of those things, but as a quick all-in-one resource Word Hippo is topnotch.
OneLook Dictionary Search – Like Word Hippo, this is a multipurpose word search site, though with a different approach. This searches a great variety of other online reference sites and dictionaries, and here you can search for words related to a certain word or concept, phrases or compound words beginning or ending with a certain word, all possible meanings for an acronym, and so on. In addition to its utility, this is just a fun site to play around with.
Especially useful to lyrics writers obviously. I’m not a musician, but I have written lyrics in conjunction with my novel AL+ER, in which lyrics from an invented rock band serve as a kind of narration for the story in the same way that the quotes from Princess Irulan’s many books do in Frank Herbert’s Dune. At any rate, these sites have been useful to me for that purpose.
All writers should know the rules of proper grammar. It’s kind of a ‘duh’ as the saying goes. You may want to break the rules stylistically, and that’s okay, but you should be sure you know the rules you’re breaking and not just naively throwing your stuff out there and hoping you are getting the point across. Even those who think they know it all can often use a refresher from time to time. So here are some of the best resources available for free on the web!
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – This sleek book, penned by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White in 1918, still holds up pretty well today and is the single best source for understanding the basic rules of English grammar. Although I have a paperback copy too, I’m happy that Bartleby graciously offers an online copy of this succinct classic guide to good writing. Note: Bartleby has plenty of other classic works in fiction and nonfiction on its website so it’s well worth looking into even if you’re not interested in using the online version of The Elements of Style there.
Guide to Grammar and Writing – This comprehensive and up-to-date online guide to good grammar can be used in either a (low) graphic format or a text-only format, making it fine for anyone’s online setting preferences.
On-Line Guide to Forms of Address – What do you call the Archbishop of the Christian Orthodox church when addressing him? Or how do you address the Dalai Lama on the envelope when writing to him? Almost any title or honorific you need to know about is listed here, and if it isn’t you can submit a question to Robert Hickey, Deputy Director of the Protocol School of Washington.
Perhaps nothing is more important in this list than knowing how to format a manuscript for submission to a publisher. There is a proper way, and if you don’t know how to do it you risk having your manuscript tossed in the trash before it’s even read. So here is the pertinent information.
Proper Manuscript Format for Fiction Writers – Set up by noted science fiction author William Shunn, this site provides all the information needed to properly format and submit your short story, novel or poem for publication. He has even created a template for the Word program that automatically does the formatting for you, but really if you want to be a professional writer you should know how to do it yourself, and this site explains exactly how to do it. Shunn’s informative blog is also worth a look-see every so often.
In proper English, which words do you leave uncapitalized in a title? – Not a proper site but a question submitted to Yahoo Answers. I still struggle with this one sometimes, so this is what you need to know about what and what not to capitalize in titles.
Animal Groups – Want to know what you would call a group of bullfinches, raccoons or hippopotamuses? This is the page that can tell you.
Most Common First Names and Last Names in the U.S. – Gathered via the U.S. Census Bureau, this website lists the most common names in the United States, the number of occurrences and their race and gender breakdown. This is good for creating American characters with common or uncommon names.