Mrs. Schlepke’s substitute: Helpful reference books

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stack of booksYou have a writing assignment, and you’re typing away in a flurry of inspiration. (Or is it desperation because your deadline looms?) Suddenly, a question pops into your head that makes you come to a dead stop: Should you use “affect” or effect”? Or maybe this is the question: Does the period go inside the quotes or outside? How about: Do you put commas in a date, and if so, where? Actually, it could be any of a hundred nagging little questions whose answers lie buried in the high school English class detritus left in your unconsciousness.

Instead of relying on dusty memory or calling Mrs. Schlepke, your freshman English teacher, out of retirement, it’s much easier to make sure you have a few handy-dandy reference books within reach. When writing professionally, whether for your job or for your career, it’s imperative that you present as close to a perfect communication piece as possible. Grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes look sloppy and unprofessional. And you can’t rely on spell checker alone. If you’ve used “effect” when the correct word is “affect,” your mistake will go unnoticed by spell checker.

You want your piece to be something Mrs. Schlepke would be proud of, and maybe even merit an A from her. Here’s why:

  •  Error-free communication helps to clearly deliver your message. Mistakes distract.
  • If your piece is printed, a mistake can’t be corrected without incurring extra cost.
  •  A well-written piece exudes competency.

So, what are some reference books that can help you create that perfect communication?

Associated Press Stylebook: Journalists and most corporate and marketing communications professionals refer to this one. It’s organized in a user-friendly manner that makes it easy to find the rule you’re looking for. There is also an online version, and an app is available for a subscription. To order the book or sign up for the online subscription and/or app, visit

Chicago Manual of Style: This is probably one of the most popular reference books used by corporate and marketing communication pros. It contains a comprehensive list of grammar and punctuation rules. It’s heft and detail might seem intimidating at first, but once you start using it, you’ll see how easy it is to find just about any answer you need for your writing. An online subscription is also available at

A dictionary: This could be in book form, but Merriam-Webster also has an online dictionary available for free at Both a free and a premium app are available too.

Your organization’s style guide: Most organizations have developed their own style guide to let employees know how to handle their brands, industry-specific terms and acronyms, and other idiosyncrasies of the company’s style. (For example, though almost the entire world, even the Associated Press Stylebook uses “email,” I worked with an organization that insisted on keeping the more passé version: e-mail. And to make sure everyone stuck to “e-mail,” there was an entry in its style guide.)

Now, here are some other reference tools that aren’t essential but would probably be helpful:

A thesaurus: When you’ve said “teamwork” far too often in your letter, check out a thesaurus to find alternatives. Maybe “esprit de corps”? Along with its online dictionary, Merriam-Webster offers a free online thesaurus at

The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn: This book explains, in a way far more engaging than Mrs. Schlepke’s teaching methods, the rules of grammar and punctuation. It also gives a good overview of the different levels of proofreading and editing, and it provides quizzes to test your knowledge to boot. This  guide is available to purchase at

You might not need all these reference books and tools, but each and every one of them can raise up your writing a significant professional notch!


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