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Bryson, Bill 1951–

Bryson, Bill 1951–

(William Bryson)

PERSONAL:

Born December 8, 1951, in Des Moines, IA; son of William (a sports columnist) and Mary Bryson; married; wife's name Cynthia (a nurse); children: David, Felicity, Catherine, Samuel. Education: Attended Drake University.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Hanover, NH, and Norfolk, England.

CAREER:

Journalist and author. Worked at a newspaper in Bournemouth, England, beginning 1977, and for business sections of the Times and the Independent, London, England. Guest on television programs, including Good Morning America and Sunday Morning. Appointed an English Heritage Commissioner, 2003; named Chancellor of Durham University in northern England, 2005; honorary Order of the British Empire (OBE), from the British government, 2006.

WRITINGS:

The Facts on File Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Facts on File (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, 1988, published as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Penguin (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, Viking (New York, NY), 1988, published as Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2002.

(As William Bryson) The Palace under the Alps, and Over Two Hundred Other Unusual, Unspoiled, and Infrequently Visited Spots in Sixteen European Countries, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1985.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1991, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.

The Penguin Dictionary for Writers and Editors, Viking (New York, NY), 1992, published as Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2008.

Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.

Notes from a Small Island: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain, Morrow (New York, NY), 1995.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1998.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 1999.

(Editor, with Jason Wilson) The Best American Travel Writing, 2000, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.

In a Sunburned Country, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2000, published as Down Under, Doubleday (London, England), 2000.

Bill Bryson's African Diary, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2002.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2003.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Atlas Books/ HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2007.

Author of "Notes from a Big Country," a weekly column in Mail on Sunday. Contributor to periodicals, including Travel and Leisure, National Geographic, and the New York Times.

ADAPTATIONS:

Neither Here nor There was adapted for audio recording by Random House (New York, NY), 1999; In a Sunburned Country was adapted for audio recording by BDD Audio (New York, NY), 2000.

SIDELIGHTS:

Bill Bryson's works can be divided into two categories, according to some reviewers. "In his adoptive Britain," Norman Oder explained in Publishers Weekly, "Bryson reached best-seller status with wiseacre travelogues…. In the United States, he's best known for excursions into the lore of the English language."

For the first of the travelogues, the American-born journalist returned from his home in North Yorkshire, England, to his native Iowa and set out on a journey by car across the North American continent to write The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. The work is an account of a thirty-eight-state tour Bryson began in 1987, having decided to embark on the kind of motor trip his family once took in their blue Rambler station wagon. Bryson's quest was to find the perfect small town in which, as he explains in The Lost Continent, "Bing Crosby would be the priest, Jimmy Stewart mayor, Fred MacMurray the high school principal, Henry Fonda a Quaker farmer. Walter Brennan would run the gas station, a boyish Mickey Rooney would deliver groceries, and somewhere, at an open window, Deanna Durbin would sing."

Throughout his travels, however, Bryson offers descriptions of what he finds as "parking lots and tallish buildings surrounded by a sprawl of shopping centers, gas stations and fast-food joints." His observations about small-town America are laced with a sharp-edged humor; at one point he notes that "talking about a scenic route in southeast Iowa is like talking about a good Barry Manilow album," which alienated some reviewers. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Wanda Urbanska termed The Lost Continent "merely a forum for the put-down humor so popular these days." Newsweek contributor Jim Miller, however, noted that the book "is paradoxically touching—a melancholy memoir in the form of a snide travelogue." The Lost Continent proved more popular with readers, becoming a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. "You have to be able to laugh at yourself to understand this book, and I know that is asking a lot of some people," Bryson explained in the Chicago Tribune. "It really is a fond portrait."

Bryson again took to the road with his next book, although this time journeying the European continent. Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe describes his adventures in places such as France, Italy, Norway, and Turkey. As with The Lost Continent, some reviewers expressed reservations about Neither Here nor There, complaining that the book's humor sometimes wears thin. Dervla Murphy in the Times Literary Supplement found that "sometimes Bill Bryson's humour recalls [P.G.] Wodehouse, sometimes Flann O'Brien. More often it is distinctive, depending on his cunning use of flamboyant exaggerations, grotesque but always successful metaphors and the deft juxtapositions of incongruous images—the whole presented in a style that boldly veers from laid-back colloquial American to formal clean-cut English."

In the mid-1990s, Bryson moved back to the United States, where he settled with his family in Hanover, New Hampshire. Before leaving England, where he had lived for more than twenty years, the author toured the island one last time, confining himself to public transportation and foot travel. Notes from a SmallIsland: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain represents what some reviewers have likened to a fond farewell. "This affectionate valediction lauds British eccentricity, endurance, and genius for adversity," Oder wrote. British critic Boyd Tonkin reported in New Statesman and Society that, beneath the humor of Bryson's "all-smiles, easy reading jaunt," there flows an undercurrent of lament for days gone by. "The Britain he loves is quaint, quiet and deeply welfare-statist," Tonkin wrote, and Bryson's criticisms of "the damage wrought by market-minded dogmas," however witty, left the critic "unpersuaded. … He seldom reads our mustn't-grumble tolerance as a sign of surrender, not just of civility." In the United States, on the other hand, some reviewers were delighted with Bryson's "trenchant, witty and detailed observations," as a Publishers Weekly critic noted. Publishers Weekly recommended Notes from a Small Island as an "immensely entertaining" account, and Booklist reviewer Alice Joyce hailed Bryson's writing as "delightfully irreverent."

Bryson marked his return to the land of his birth with an exploration of one of America's longest and oldest footpaths—the Appalachian Trail. His goal was to walk the entire trail, more than two thousand miles long, from Georgia to Maine. He set out optimistically from a Georgia state park with a companion of his boyhood and completed the first hundred miles with relative ease. "Initially, it didn't seem an impossible task," Bryson told Oder in an interview. "But your expectations cannot match reality." Citing difficulties ranging from "drudgery" to the whimsical reliability of maps and map makers to the defection of his partner, Stephen Katz, Bryson abridged his plan. According to New Statesman critic Albert Scardino: "He decides he doesn't have to walk the whole trail to absorb its spirit." In various segments over a period of time, Bryson eventually completed more than eight hundred miles of hiking and observation. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is the memoir of his journey. A Forbes reviewer remarked that the author's "humor is winning and succinct" and displays a talent "for boiling down his observations to their absurd essences." Library Journal critic Nancy J. Moeckel wrote: "Bryson shares some truly laugh-out-loud moments" in his "amiable" account of the journey and the people he meets along the way. A British reviewer for the Economist compared Bryson's talents to the "droll American mix of folksy intelligence and aw-shucks wit" of Garrison Keillor, and Ron Antonucci recommended the memoir to Booklist readers as "a marvelous description and history of the trail."

Oder suggested that A Walk in the Woods represents a combination of both sides of Bryson's career: "picaresque traveler and lore-gatherer." The lore-gatherer emerges in several books about words and language, beginning with The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words. A third edition of the book was released in 2002 as Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words and contains "some sixty percent" new or updated material, according to the author. Created initially by Bryson as an editorial tool for personal use, it remains a concise guide to common English language problems. Features include lists of words and phrases often misused, clarification of differences between British and American English, redundant wording, examples of blatant errors found in prominent publications, and a glossary of punctuation and grammatical terms. A Booklist reviewer described this book as "admittedly narrow in range" but a "pithy guide [that] will work fine in conjunction with a full-blown style manual." Lilli McCowan of the European Business Journal concluded that "Bryson can help us to get stylish and even better, understood."

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way is an anecdotal, historical survey of what Bryson calls "the most important and successful language in the world." The Mother Tongue was warmly received by critics, who considered the book lively and engaging. New York Times Book Review contributor Burt Hochberg found reading Bryson's presentation of such topics as etymology, pronunciation, spelling, dialects, grammar, origins of names, and wordplay "an enthralling excursion."

In Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, Bryson, according to Oder, "uses the evolution of American English to slalom through American History and culture." The Economist reviewer described Bryson as "an easy, intelligent and good-humoured writer" but warned: "Towards its end the book threatens to become little more than a history of consumption and consumer goods: how the automobile, shopping mall, aeroplane, hamburger, came to America." That reviewer also warned of errors—a caution echoed by other critics as well. In People, Elaine Kahn identified some of the mistakes that could lead an unwary reader astray. Others reviewers were less critical, however. Albert Kim of Entertainment Weekly was engaged by Bryson's "unabashed curiosity" about the English language and the "sheer delight" he derives from transmitting the information to his readers. George W. Hunt summarized the work in America as, overall, "a leisurely history … of a nation's growth as dramatized by its changing vocabulary," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book "a treasure trove of trivia about American culture past and present."

Bryson revisited his favored genre of travel writing and his editorial past for The Best American Travel Writing, 2000. As guest editor, Bryson shared duties with series editor Jason Wilson to publish this volume of Houghton Mifflin's "Best American" series. This collection of travel anthologies was described by Nicholas Howe in the New Republic as "‘testosterone travel’ or ‘exploraporn’ … today's versions of the adventure stories that ran thirty or fifty years ago in barbershop or cigar-store magazines." Bryson chose travel pieces he liked for this collection, penned by writers who, according to a Publishers Weekly contributor, "share a love of a place, a moment, a people," and who have written tales to "remind us of how amazing the world truly is."

Bryson recorded his return to the world of his roots in a collection of essays originally written for the British magazine Night and Day. The book I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away is filled with funny anecdotes describing contemporary American life from the absurd, witty, and unique vantage of Bryson, who chose to make his birth land home after twenty years as an expatriate. "This is humor writing at its sharpest," noted Brad Hooper in Booklist, who went on to say that "his saving grace is that he does more laughing with us than at us." Wilda Williams of Library Journal reported that the book is filled with Bryson's "trademark humor," but also "a bit slight and choppy," a small criticism that she does not expect to have any impact on the book's popularity.

In a Sunburned Country is Bryson's appropriately eccentric and humorous depiction of Australia, the continent he claims "has more things that will kill you than anywhere else," an opinion he expands, saying: "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or helplessly carried out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback." Harry Levins, writing in the St. Louis Dispatch, warned that "In a Sunburned Country is not a travel guide or tour book," yet he recommended Bryson's "witty, curious, and fiendishly observant" book as good traveling company. Robert Zeller in Antipodes reported that "Bryson is at his best in portraying the various characters he encounters … and in conveying his sense of wonder at his discoveries."

Not all reviewers found In a Sunburned Country to be Bryson's most sterling book. David Gates in Newsweek found Bryson's "leaden whimsy and faux-conversational tone" to be annoying and "the wealth of gee-whiz factoids [to be] almost … worth the trip."

Perhaps the most accurate description of the book, its author, and the subject was from a reviewer in Publishers Weekly who commented that "a land as vast as Australia needs a primer to make it accessible, and Bryson has accomplished that with humor and relentless curiosity."

In 2003, Bryson published his hefty work, A Short History of Nearly Everything. The book, while neither short nor covering anywhere near "everything," is an entertaining overview that provides a grounding in the history of a number of the sciences. The result is that humankind appears to be rather small and insignificant in the face of some of the miraculous and all-encompassing pieces of knowledge that Bryson chooses to share. He begins with an overview of the theories that explain the beginning of the universe, with a focus on Big Bang theory. Other subjects covered include the distances between points in space and how long space travel might take, the theory of relativity and other work by Albert Einstein, the structure of DNA and a history of what we know about it, and the studies and thought of such diverse scientific personalities as Charles Darwin and Edwin Hubble. Over the course of the book, he discusses various theories of physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and evolution. Christopher Martyn, in a review for the British Medical Journal, took issue with the lack of hard scientific explanation accompanying Bryson's less serious narrative, dubbing his effort "a bumper book of jaw-dropping facts transformed into a jaunty narrative by a professional writer." However, a reviewer for Astronomy found the book "entertaining and accessible," and concluded that "readers fond of Bryson's keen eye for atmospheric detail won't be disappointed." Orla Smith, in a review for Science, commented that "although the tome is generally a delight to read, it begins to sag under the weight of the author's daunting task somewhere between quarks and the troposphere. Some parts succeed better than others."

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, loosely framed as Bryson's memoir, takes a look back at the city of Des Moines, Iowa, during the time that Bryson lived there as a child. The Thunderbolt Kid of the title is the self-appointed persona that Bryson would adopt when he felt the need of some bravado going up against the town bullies, or the town morons, depending on the circumstances. The book includes commentary on both politics and pop culture of the day, giving readers a look at the world of yesteryear through Bryson's witty and sarcastic lens. Allison M. Lewis, writing for LibraryJournal, observed that "the larger world of 1950s America emerges through the lens of ‘Billy's’ world."

At a time when new books on the life and works of William Shakespeare appear faster than readers can work their way through them, Bryson has thrown his hat into the ring with Shakespeare: The World as Stage. Part of the "Penguin Lives" series, the book takes a concise and amusing look at the life of the Bard. Bryson is up front regarding the difficulties about chronicling Shakespeare's days, pointing out that despite the large number of biographies that have been written on the subject, very few facts are actually known with regards to who Shakespeare was and what he accomplished over the course of his life. Bryson does not claim to have made any earth-shattering discoveries, nor to offer up any original ideas regarding who might have written the works of Shakespeare if Shakespeare himself was not responsible. Instead, he provides a clear and lucid look at the life of the playwright and seeks to set the record straight regarding what is fact and what is simply speculation. Desmond Ryan, in a review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, concluded that "Bryson's unassuming and enjoyable survey is a useful introduction that students and playgoers will find handy. It is the work of a man who clearly loves Shakespeare and is bold enough to hold the conviction, heretical as it may be in some quarters, that he actually wrote the immortal texts that bear his name." Booklist contributor Ray Olson wrote that "Bryson doesn't seem the obvious choice for a Shakespeare biography, but he does the job quite wonderfully." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote: "Bryson is a pleasant and funny guide to a subject at once overexposed and elusive."

Reviewers from the Boston Herald and other newspapers have compared Bryson's writing to that of a "somewhat sedate" or "smarter, more sarcastic" Dave Barry. A Publishers Weekly critic claimed that Bryson's "strength lies in his ability to incorporate astounding facts about the country with nutty personal anecdotes."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Bryson, Bill, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.

Bryson, Bill, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.

Bryson, Bill, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2006.

PERIODICALS

America, November 25, 1995, George W. Hunt, review of Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, p. 2.

Antipodes, December, 2000, Robert Zeller, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 175.

Astronomy, January 1, 2004, "One Book Fits All," p. 96.

Booklist, May 1, 1996, Alice Joyce, review of Notes from a Small Island: An Affectionate Portrait of Britain, p. 1486; April, 1998, Ron Antonucci, review of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, pp. 1297-1299; April 1, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away, p. 363; August, 1999, Karen Harris, review of Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, p. 2075; September 15, 1999, Whitney Scott, review of A Walk in the Woods, p. 276; September 15, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of The Best American Travel Writing, 2000, p. 97; July, 2002, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, p. 1805; October 15, 2007, Ray Olson, review of Shakespeare: The World as Stage, p. 21.

Boston Herald, June 6, 1999, Erica Noonan, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. 64; June 29, 2000, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 62.

British Medical Journal, October 25, 2003, Christopher Martyn, review of A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 994.

Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1989, interview with Bill Bryson, pp. 1, 10.

Economist, August 20, 1994, review of Made in America, p. 69; November 15, 1997, review of A Walk in the Woods, pp. S5-S7.

Entertainment Weekly, May 5, 1995, Albert Kim, review of Made in America, p. 63; June 7, 1996, Curt Feldman, review of Notes from a Small Island, p. 54.

European Business Journal, spring, 2002, Lilli McCowan, review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, p. 53.

Forbes, May 4, 1998, review of A Walk in the Woods, p. S140.

Fortune, July 10, 2000, "The Books of Summer," review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 314.

Guardian, October 16, 1999, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. 11; December 21, 2002, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 14.

Houston Chronicle, July 30, 2000, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 14.

Insight on the News, October 16, 2000, Rex Roberts, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 33.

Library Journal, April 1, 1998, Nancy J. Moeckel, review of A Walk in the Woods, pp. 114-116; May 15, 1999, Wilda Williams, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. 114; September 1, 1999, Carolyn Alexander, review of Neither Here nor There, p. 255; March 1, 2000, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. S1; June 1, 2000, Joseph L. Carlson, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 174; December, 2000, Robert Zeller, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 175; September 15, 2001, Nancy Pearl, review of A Walk in the Woods, p. 61; August, 2002, review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words; September 1, 2006, Alison M. Lewis, review of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, p. 155.

Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1990, Wand Urbanska, review of The Lost Continent, pp. E1, E13.

New Republic, August 6, 2001, Nicholas Howe, review of The Best American Travel Writing, 2000, p. 34.

New Statesman, December 12, 1997, Albert Scardino, review of A Walk in the Woods, pp. 43-45.

New Statesman & Society, October 4, 1991, Marek Kohn, review of Neither Here nor There, pp. 35-36; September 15, 1995, Boyd Tonkin, review of Notes from a Small Island, p. 34.

Newsweek, August 14, 1989, Jim Miller, review of The Lost Continent, p. 51; June 5, 2000, David Gates, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 73.

New York, September 18, 1989, Chris Smith, review of The Lost Continent, p. 26.

New York Times, June 5, 2000, Janet Maslin, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. B6.

New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1989, Michele Slung, review of The Lost Continent, p. 26; August 5, 1990, Burt Hochberg, review of The Mother Tongue, p. 8; May 30, 1999, Elizabeth Gleick, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. 10; August 20, 2000, Annette Kobak, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 105; December 3, 2000, "Travel Review," p. 58.

People, April 17, 1995, Elaine Kahn, review of Made in America, p. 32.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 28, 2007, Desmond Ryan, review of Shakespeare.

Publishers Weekly, February 13, 1995, review of Made in America, p. 71; March 4, 1996, review of Notes from a Small Island, p. 40; February 23, 1998, review of A Walk in the Woods, p. 57; May 4, 1998, Norman Oder, "Bill Bryson: An Ex-expat Traveling Light," author interview, pp. 191-193; March 22, 1999, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. 76; May 15, 2000, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 95; September 18, 2000, review of The Best American Travel Writing, 2000, p. 96; June 3, 2002, review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, p. 75; September 3, 2007, review of Shakespeare, p. 47.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 30, 2001, Harry Levins, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. E1; June 18, 2000, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. F8.

Science, February 13, 2004, Orla Smith, "Moving Mountains," p. 960.

Spectator, July 22, 2000, Michael Davie, review of Down Under, p. 35; December 15, 2001, Christopher Howse, review of Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, p. 61.

Times (London, England), July 5, 2000, James Bone, "Our Rumpled Tour-guide to the Familiar," p. B12.

Times Literary Supplement, October 18, 1991, Dervla Murphy, review of Neither Here nor There, p. 28; July 28, 2000, Robert Drewe, review of Down Under, p. 8.

U.S. News and World Report, June 12, 2000, Holly J. Morris, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. 69.

Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1999, Kate Flatley, review of I'm a Stranger Here Myself, p. W9.

Washington Post, October 18, 2000, Elizabeth Ward, review of In a Sunburned Country, p. C8.

ONLINE

Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (November 9, 2003), "Bill Bryson."

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