Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Consistency: Not Just for Hobgoblins Any More

Theresa, what do you think?

I think that every time a writer says about punctuation, "but it's my voice," an angel dies. And not just any angel. A cute, pink, puffy-cheeked baby angel with those adorable fat rolls on its chubby little thighs. Now, do you really want to go through life with that on your conscience -- being the murderer of a wee baby angel?

Okay, maybe I'm overstating the case. Forgive me. I tend to get a bit wild-eyed when discussing punctuation.

So let me give you are a real answer, and I'll try to be rational.

There are two golden rules to keep in mind about punctuation in general. Rule Number One: the publishing house's style guide will control final decisions on punctuation in 99% of the cases. Rule Number Two: if you don't know the house style, then above all, be consistent.

I'm going to let you all in on a little secret. I wrote our house style guide. I didn't do it on my own; the editors, copy editors, publisher, and even the typesetter all provided input. And by "input," I mean "argued bitterly over the details." For months. On some of the details, the debate still rages. In fact, in the weeks leading up to our recent editorial retreat, our copy editor warned me repeatedly that she was going to take me on over the Oxford comma, and she did, but probably with less satisfaction than she had hoped for. And don't even get me started on the four-day argument over semicolons that started at the author dinner on Thursday, raged at intervals over the course of the day on Friday, carried us through the drive to Sonoma County, and provided endless conversational fodder for our three days in wine country. You know it's bad when an editor wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks, "Auden!" And the next night, another editor bolts wide awake and thinks, "Yes, but Dickinson!" And each one's slings her quoted poetry at the other, convinced of her righteousness.

So I could tell you that a lot of thought went into the style guide, but the truth is far more complex. Editors approach these matters with an obsessiveness usually reserved to misers counting pennies. That's what makes them good at what they do. If they’re not passionate about whether an ellipses can or can not serve as an end mark, then they probably won't give a damn about many of the other aspects of your story, either.

The house style guide represents a sort of neutral territory in the midst of these ongoing battles. Because the rules of English grammar are in constant flux, and because formal and casual English adopt different rules, there are multiple right answers to the same question. Can you use a semicolon? Answer: it depends on who you ask, when you ask, and the source material. (But the answer is no if you're writing light genre fiction. And now let's all wait to see how long it takes Alicia to respond to that comment.)

You know, we're just perverse enough as a breed to think that all this bickering is fun. We all obey the style guide, and we all know as a result of months of arguing fine points when we can safely ignore the style guide. We develop inside jokes from particular arguments -- just watch Alicia and I use the words "natural storyteller" and then giggle like schoolgirls. Through all of these evolving arguments, even when we may concede a point or agree to adopt a particular convention, we never accept defeat. Because deep in our hearts, every editor worthy of the job title is utterly convinced of the correctness of her personal beliefs. Never mind the evidence. We've thought deeply about it. We know.

Authors are not privy to any of this, though sometimes you witness parts of it. Sometimes you might even enter the fray momentarily, and kudos to those of you brave enough to do it. But here's the thing. When you send your editor an e-mail saying, “But I don't want to do my commas that way," what you're really doing is re-opening a behind-the-scenes battle -- dipping into the ocean's surf, if you will, and wading with those of us who live like dolphins.

So, with all that said, it takes us to the specific question. An author wants to adopt two separate sets of conventions for her punctuation in the same novel. One set will apply to the "voice" of a particular character. The other set will apply to the balance of the novel, which is presumably in the author's voice. Is this acceptable, or even a good idea? Answer: it depends on who you ask, when you ask, and the source material.

But the real answer is no.

There are dozens of reasons that the real answer is no, but they all point to two different concepts. First concept: the purpose of a house style guide is to create a consistent style in all documents released by a line or a house. What you're trying to do violates the very purpose of the house style. More than that, the first reader -- and indeed, all subsequent readers, if you're lucky enough to get to them -- will see your punctuation as inconsistent. It's unlikely that they will analyze it more deeply than that. If they notice it at all, they will probably find it puzzling or annoying. If they don’t notice it, they might still be subconsciously unsettled by the book’s inconsistencies. In either case, you risk breaking what John Gardner calls the fictive dream, that mental state a reader enters when they are captivated by a story. Unless the break is deliberate (and for some experimental or literary writers, such breaks are deliberate), this is not the effect you want.

Second concept: Even if your editor goes along with it -- and it's unlikely that she will -- the copy editor and proofreader are going to hate it. They will find it confusing (as, I suspect, will most of the readers), and they won’t want to be responsible for getting it correct. They're going to try to change everything to the house standards. It will lead to an editorial battle, which the managing editor will settle by saying, "Do what the style guide tells you to do." And then everyone will remember you as the author of the manuscript that led to those battles. That's not how you want to be remembered in-house.

If you are writing genre fiction, you should strive to make your punctuation as transparent as possible. Trust the words. Let the words tell the story. Let the words provide cadence and rhythm, meaning and context. Punctuation is not bling and you should not apply commas like a pointillist decorating a canvas. You don't want your end reader to notice your punctuation. You want them to notice your story.

Trust me on this. I've thought deeply about it. I know.



Anonymous said...

I really, really want to come hang out with y'all.

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Criminy! Why didn't I read this before I turned in a certain revision.

Was it not enough that you cured me of serial em-dashery? Do I have to relinquish my semi colons, too?

Nooooooooooooooooo-o-o-o-o. :-)

(I really did read the style guide, honest!)

Anonymous said...

Canadian Science Fiction writer Robert Sawyer has an article somewhere on his massive site ( about his battles with copy-editors when the house style didn't make sense for the novel.

The instances I can think of where about issues other than punctuation itself. For example, earth is a perfectly fine word for our planet, but if you're constantly referring to other planets in our solar system, then it's probably more consistent to call it Earth (capital E). Other examples included words and phrases he coined for the speculative technologies in his book.

He found that including a single-page reference on top of the manuscript that says, in effect, "these exceptions from the house style are on purpose and applied consistently", then he got his way. Of course, he's a big deal.

I, on the other hand, am a newbie working a first-person mystery in which the sleuth is a software engineer--a persona I'm quite familiar with. I know there are going to be things that confuse or annoy editors. For example, speeches in a story are called dialogue, but interactive windows in an application's user interface are dialog boxes--without the ue. And, as used by software engineers, the word data is almost always singular, not plural. If I'm lucky enough to sell this work, I doubt I'll have enough sway to keep these from being changed. In my mind, that's a shame, because it's part of the character/narrator's voice. It'll lose a bit of authenticity in the eyes of readers familiar with this world.

As a reader, I wonder about the value of a house style. I want the books I read to be self-consistent. I expect books in a series to have a certain consistency. But I don't have any expectation that various books from a particular publisher will be the same in terms of these stylistic choices. Assuming that the publisher's imprint on a book sets any sort of expectations for me, then it's probably more about the kinds of stories, which is a much higher level than serial commas, British spelling, and odd capitalization.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double-post. I found Robert Sawyer's notes to his copy editor:

Edittorrent said...

Adrian, that's an interesting dilemma. I think jargon presents a special case, and that's really what you're dealing with. So dialogue/dialog is less a matter of house style and more a matter of vocabulary. I have a question, though. How do you set up the distinction between these terms in the text? Do you? Or do you just use them contextually and expect the reader to roll with it? I'm not advocating for either choice; I'm just curious about how you've handled it.

Kim, I'm sorry we didn't get the chance to raise a glass in SF. It's always fun to hang out with you.

Liane, quit worrying. We love your writing. :)


Wes said...

OMG! This makes academics look collegial. When I was a professor I tried to keep in mind a quote from Woodrow Wilson who had been president of Princeton. It went something like "The reason politics in academia are so vicious is that the stakes are so small."

Natalie Hatch said...

I learned in an advanced editing masterclass on the weekend that the Russian Revolution started over the comma... my retort was 'that's why they're commanunists' didn't go down well with the editors.. darn.
Apparently the printers were getting paid by the type, except commas, so they started striking over it, then the rest sort of snowballed. So in a nutshell, don't mess with editors or printers, there's bound to be a comma in it somewhere. ,,,

Ian said...

Yeah, so let's discuss the oft-neglected and sadly-misunderstood semicolon already!

*runs away and hides*


Ali said...

I wonder why Alicia thought you'd have an opinion? ;-)

This insight on the editing process and how it impacts this stuff is fascinating, thanks.

But: punctuation as voice, you don't buy? At the risk of being considered sort of pesky, can I give an example?

A) So, Bill asked for another chance borrowing my car, and I gave it to him. This was probably a stupid idea. Last time, he dinged the fender on a tree before he was three feet out of the driveway.

B)So Bill asked for another chance borrowing my car and I gave it to him, which was probably a stupid idea because last time he dinged the fender on a tree before he was three feet out of thet driveway.

I would consider both of those to be my voice as an author, either could be an 18-year-old protagonist, but the characters, in my mind, would be quite different.

I would argue that if my character is a (B) kind of guy, to write him like (A) would ring false, even if it were more grammatically correct, and even if (A) would be a fine voice for an (A) kind of character.

(This is written off the cuff, by the way--I make no claim that either are great writing. Trash with abandon).

Ali said...

Oh, one more thing. (Yes, she is being pesky!). I'm not talking about using two styles--there wouldn't be an author voice, distinct from the protagonist's narrative voice, in a first-person p.o.v., would there?

Edittorrent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edittorrent said...

Of course you can use semicolons in light genre fiction. What, light genre fiction is written in a language other than English?

I wouldn't use semicolons often, because generally you should state (with a conjunction-- and, or, but, so) what the relationship between the two clauses is. But sometimes it's either so clear you don't have to state it, and sometimes you don't want to state it because it will be clumsy. Hence the semicolon.

Don't overuse, of course. But the semicolon would not be in the language if it didn't have a useful function.

Theresa, I canNOT believe you'd actually side with Lynn the Semicolon Slaughterer on this.
Alicia (miffed and, as always, right)

Edittorrent said...

Plenty of things are legitimately functional and yet don't belong in our kinds of books. When was the last time you saw the words "hereinbefore" or "hereinafter" in a beach read? Yet they're perfectly respectable and functional. There's a difference between functionality and appropriateness.

Don't be miffed. You two ganged up on me over that damned Oxford comma.

Theresa, right again

Edittorrent said...

Ali, as I understood the question, you were talking about applying two sets of rules within the same book. My mistake. In that case, just be consistent.

And your example isn't merely a matter of punctuation. Sentence structure varies between the two examples, and sentence structure can have an impact on voice. What I'm talking about, for example, is the comma separating the independent clauses in your first sentence. How and when to use that particular comma will be a matter of house style. You can argue for or against it during edits and copy edits, but chances are they'll apply house style.


Ali said...

Well, seeing as I've just begun the search for an agent, if--oops I mean when--I get to the point of arguing over punctuation in a copy edit I'll be thrilled to give you the opportunity to say, "I told you so!" :-)

Once again, thanks--this is ever so helpful.

Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Punctuation is not bling. Hee! I'm giggling over that one here.

Jody W.

Anonymous said...

As a writer and an editor of the literary journal Southern California Review, I, too, have "thought deeply" about punctuation and am "utterly convinced of the correctness of [my] personal beliefs" -- even, apparently, in a comment on a blog! I welcome discussion of such details -- both as a writer and an editor -- and frankly have been surprised when it hasn't taken place over what I would deem major punctuation changes. I'm glad I'm not the only one who takes this so seriously! Enjoy your blog, -ae

Anonymous said...

mostsjustes, you must weight i on semicolons. :)

Anonymous said...

For Teresa:

From the article, just to whet your appetite:
A single page of Thomas Carlyle, or any nineteenth-century writer, reminds us, for instance, that a comma between subject and verb--for me the most offensive of all punctuation errors--was once perfectly acceptable.

Have you spewed your cornflakes yet? ;-)

Edittorrent said...

I mean-- (carpal tunnel is making me typo):

mostsjustes, you must weigh in on semicolons. :)