Sunday, March 25, 2012

A bizarre trend

Several times in the last month or so, I've heard discussion of the use of the Chicago Manual of Style to edit novels. Chicago is a very useful, comprehensive style guide, but its purpose has little to do with fiction. Its purpose is to create uniform methodology and typography for research documents ranging from student papers to textbooks. Though some of its rules can certainly be applied to fiction, its purpose is not generally aimed at fiction.

To really understand this, it might help to know something about the process copy editors use to edit fiction manuscripts. For each individual project, they create style sheets. These style sheets contain everything from story details (correct spellings of character names, physical descriptions, etc.) to narrative details (that particular author's comma usage patterns, for example). The style sheet is a reference guide that the copy editor then uses to check consistency throughout the document. Some copy editors turn in their style sheets when they turn in the finished project so that the author and lead editor can see the style rules applied.

A house can create a style sheet or style guide that is meant to apply to all manuscripts generated by the house. This house guide is meant to simplify the copy editing and production process by taking the guesswork out of common style questions, such as when to include periods in certain acronyms. (Ph.D. or PhD?)

So, in the beginning, the University of Chicago press created a style sheet for its typesetters and compositors to help them figure out things like citation notation, and how to use archaic alphabets, and how to set scientific equations and symbols. It was an academic style system for academic works published by an academic press, and it was good. Many people wanted to use this style system because it simplified the process for all of them. The Chicago Manual has been through many revisions over the years and is now in its 15th or 16th edition.

Here's the thing, though. Academic grammar and style conventions are more formal than the everyday sorts of grammar and style rules that most people commonly use. If you understand the different philosophies of grammar and the ways the rules bend and shift to accommodate those different philosophies, then you will know that many writer quarrels stem from these philosophical differences. Most comma rules, in fact, can change depending on which style approach you take. The more formal and academic the document, the more commas it will contain.

I mention commas specifically because this came up on an author list recently. An author was complaining that her different copy editors each used different comma rules, and each insisted that her rule was "grammatically correct" with that sort of lead-pipe blunt force common to those who know how to apply a rule but can't explain why they're doing it. Now, I've worked with a lot of copy editors over the years, and I know that the best among them tend to get a little shrill over their pet rules. But the best among them also know that there are multiple rules sets, each of which can be applied to create a different but equally valid finished product. They can argue outcomes and the logic behind their style choices like the sharpest trial lawyer. And what I heard on that author on that list made me think these were not good copy editors arguing grammar philosophies, but quite a different sort of creature.

This creature is someone who studied hard in school and made good grades. She probably has been praised for her writing. She has the rule book and she knows how to use it, but she's probably never taken an advanced grammar class. She might not know that opposite rules can be equally correct -- that is, for example, that one style guide can require a comma after a single introductory transition word, and another can ban it, and each can be correct. She might not know how to choose which rule to apply or how to apply it, and yet, she can still legitimately consider herself "good at grammar" in the ordinary sense.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the recent blossoming of direct publishing is leading a lot of these creatures to try to drum up some side income as copy editors. I suspect, but cannot prove, that some of them are out there promoting themselves by saying they are adept in Chicago style. They know that this is often reckoned the most sophisticated and detailed of the academic style guides, and they think it says something about their skills to claim competence in it. And it does say something. It says they're competent in Chicago style.

But here's the question. Do you want Chicago style for your manuscript? Maybe you do, and maybe you don't. What baffles me is the number of people suddenly requesting it. Whenever a novelist says she wants me to edit her work with any particular academic style -- Chicago, APA, MLA, whatever -- my first question is, why? Sometimes they'll give a well-reasoned response, such as the woman who recently told me she used Chicago herself and wanted to be sure her editors could manage it. She was looking for consistency between her approach and that of her content and copy editors. That made sense. But others don't seem to know why they're requesting it. It's become a buzz word, something people talk about because they're hearing about it.

If you want to use Chicago, use Chicago. It's a legitimate choice, albeit a choice that will create a more formal text. And if you're writing genre or commercial fiction, this might not be the best choice for your book, but maybe you want it to sound more formal or academic. But know what you're getting, because it might not be what you want.



L.G.C. Smith said...

When I started editing (for a publisher) I was surprised to find Chicago as the house norm. So I use it. But as you say, in fiction, flexibility is important. As long as a book is internally consistent, if something nonstandard works, it's okay by me.

Of course, I come at things as a linguist more than a grammar rules person, so I don't have huge faith in formally stated grammar rules. In one of my first linguistics classes, I remember a prof drawing a box the size of a notebook page on the board, and saying, "Here are the rules." Then he drew a slightly bigger box around it and said, "Here are the exceptions." Then he pointed to the rest of the thirty foot long board and said, "Here's what people really do."

Kristen Stieffel said...

Theresa, this is a great observation. Anyone who only ever learned one style book tends to accept it as holy writ and deny the acceptability of other methods. Arguements over the serial comma come to mind. I worked for any years with a editor who insisted that it was "wrong" to insert the adverb between the two parts of a compund verb, e.g. "have already been." I was perplexed by this, because of course if you read Garner or anyone else, they'll tell you this is nonsense. I tracked this quirk down to a misreading of an entry in the AP Stylebook, but she still insists on changing every reporters's text to match her ingrained preference.

Anyone who adpires to copyediting should read widely, not only stylebooks, grammar texts and usage manuals, but some of the excellent blogs about editing. My favorites are the blog of the Copyediting newsletter and John E. McEntyre's You Don't Say.

And Ant Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook is a must-read. That alone helps us understand the subtleties of the craft.

Anonymous said...

I am giving you a standing ovation! Thank you for posting about this.

Sometimes this is a touchy subject to explain.


Unknown said...

I think there are some areas of overlap with fiction that Chicago could cover, but I agree: I would not insist on using it for every punctuation, grammar, or usage point. That's not necessary in fiction and in certain cases can rob the books of some of their effect.

I think that trend of misreading style manuals is one of the more concerning events that's developing in editing. I have heard people insist to me in a journal I volunteer to edit that Chicago mandates that no punctuation should be italicized. Granted, this isn't as grievous and annoying as the person who insisted that "have already gone" was wrong, but when budding editors are taught to have prescriptive attitudes (not just practices), then mistakes like these can get embedded in editing culture. I don't think we're in danger of creating a whole new slew of hobgoblins yet, but I don't see that as an impossibility.

Alicia Rasley said...

I went to the University of Chicago and esteem the wonderful Kate Turabian, but... yeah. Chicago was always designed for academic work. I'm sure the press was happy when writers all over the world forked out for copies, but its utility for fiction is limited.

Publishing houses should have their own stylebooks. If writers are going to become publishers, they should create their own stylebooks as they write and decide, for example, whether they're going to use the Oxford comma, or if they're going to put the period inside the quote mark even with just one word in the quote. Etc.

Chicago can help. (I own a copy... because I have edited several college textbooks. Never used it otherwise.) But it would be a great learning tool just to put your own book together.

LGC, yes, I think usage is really important. And a personal stylebook would allow for that.

I'm not hearing a lot of volunteers for this experiment....

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of writing my first novel (a thriller), and many times I wish I had one guide I could review to look up a grammar issue. For example, how do you punctuate something written on a tombstone, or is it: ID or I.D.? I wish there was just one definitive source that I could go to and say, "here's the answer." When an editor, agent, or someone reads my manuscript, I would like to know that it is basically correct and if not, they can point me to page 12 of some style guide and say, "here, it is." So, next time, I'll know.

With the advent of self-publishing, I think this will become a bigger issue, and we're going to see novels with significantly different grammar usage. I could imagine each genre creating (likely ad hoc) its own grammar usage customs.

I would like to know, what style guide would you recommend for a typical thriller novel?

Yvonne Osborne said...

Thank you for an excellent post. I don't want to read a novel that reads like an academic textbook. Nor do I want my novel to read academic and formal. That's not the way people talk or think.

Edittorrent said...

LGC, it's a rare fiction house that uses Chicago as a baseline. But I know this house, and I know that they release great books with excellent results, so it's obviously working for them.

Nyssa, wow. When I talk about editing with a lead pipe instead of a red pen, that's sort of what I mean. What would they do with punctuation that's part of an italicized title? There are such obvious exceptions to that never-rule!

Anon2, I'm going to write up some notes about different grammar and style books and put them on the front page. Look for it tomorrow. Doubt I'll get to it today.


Wes said...

Excellent post, as usual. For years I have wondered why someone would want to approach creative writing with an academic style manual that was devoid of artistic expression.

Now can you explain why junior agents and editors are opposed to using ugly words to portray ugly situations?

Unknown said...

I use the Chicago manual to check (before I turn the ms into my editor) for proper capitalization, certain punctuation with hyphenated words, and for how to use lie/lay which I can *never* get right. In all other matters I defer to the editor because I know they know far more than I do. :)

R. E. Hunter said...

So is there a style book that is targeted at fiction that would at least be a good baseline?

alexlukeman said...

Bravo, Theresa. I am really tired of hearing people argue about things like commas and italics based on the CMOS. Thank you for the clrification. Vedry concise post.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, truth is, stylebooks just make choices. Oh, sometimes there are actual rules (in the US, the period goes before the close quote), but many times a stylesheet just says, "At this publishing house, or in this book, PhD is presented without the periods." It's not a right or wrong (like between ID and I.D.) but rather choosing one and sticking with it consistently.

Now I don't mean that you can just decide to do something against the rules. I actually -- in one of my pissy moments-- decided it was stupid to have a one word "quote" (like that) and put the period inside the quote mark like it was actually a "quote." (Like that.) So I did an entire book MY way. And boy, did I get commentary on that.

But there are dozens of actual questions, where it's okay to do it one way but also okay to do it another. There are even words that can be spelled two ways ("traveller," "traveler"), and words with two versions of the same form (sneaked and snuck). And treatment of abbreviations and capitalizations often is a matter of choice.

But you'll want to CHOOSE, and do the same all the way through, hence a stylesheet.

I was noticing that there's no clear rule about whether you put an period at the end of items in a bulleted list (not big in fiction, but common in academic papers). I kind of evolved my own rule (period if the item is a sentence, no period if not, but if one item is a sentence, they all must be-- parallel structure).

Anyway-- ID vs. I.D.? On a gravestone? Cheaper without the periods. (Got to pay the engraver by the character, see.) But they're both acceptable.
Alicia has ruled. :)

Edittorrent said...

Wes, because those words offend readers, and readers are the customers with buying power. Find a way to communicate the ugliness of the situation without using those terms. You're a writer. You can do it.


Wes said...

I know you are right about the business side of the issue, but I'm still naive enough to think artists ought to be able to use every arrow in their quiver to make a point. If a situation is ugly, then an ugly word ought to be appropriate.

Remember how Alex Haley's ROOTS shocked America out of its false perceptions of slavery? Given the attitudes of the gatekeepers of today, that book might not be published now.