I recently finished line editing a novel for a writer friend of mine. It was so exciting to work on her story in a professional capacity. And it gave me a reason to do something that was long overdue: buy the latest Chicago Manual of Style.
I almost said “splurge.” It’s an expensive book–$65 new. But it’s very important for book authors and editors. Style guides help us be consistent with how we use language, and the Chicago guide is the publishing industry standard.
I’m from the other side of the tracks, though. The AP Style side. That’s the standard in newspapers, and it’s governed by the Associated Press. Although both guides focus on clarity and consistency, AP encourages concision. After all, newspapers and magazines only have so much space. It saves a lot of characters to use numerals, as AP requests for 10 and up (and all ages), instead of spelling out the numbers, as Chicago encourages in most instances.
When I was managing editor of a weekly newspaper, there were a few things about AP Style that I didn’t like. Using “teen-ager” was one of them. That has since been updated to “teenager.” Which means I have to update my novel, BODY COPY. This is an in-the-moment train of thought from my protagonist, Megan, as she begins her first deadline at a new job:
“Gary turns his back on me even though I want to ask whether he’s going to do an intro piece on me, what time my pages go to press and how many articles he’d like me to have for the Schools page, and whether he wants us to go by the book on teen-dash-ager or if we can slip a little and do teenager, because that’s what Betsy allowed, since it’s part of 21st century lexicon and really shouldn’t be hyphenated, no matter what the Associated Press Style Guide has been saying for the last few decades. ”
I love this 2009 column by Joe Grimm about some AP updates, including the teen change. I was also glad to hear that “backyard” is now always one word; before, depending on usage, it was sometimes “back yard,” and that was one of the rules I always had to check when copy editing on deadline.
Despite being new to Chicago, I’ve done so much newspaper editing that I knew the most important thing: what to look up. I’m still figuring out how the information is organized, as the guide is more than a thousand pages. One of the most surprising things is Chicago’s decision to encourage the Oxford comma, which I’ve been taught to avoid in school and through my newspaper work.
Now that I’ve learned some Chicago guidelines and will keep studying them, I’m considering overhauling this blog’s style, which is primarily AP–the most notable exception being my decision to run most book titles in all caps. I might even learn to love the Oxford comma.
In the next few months, I’ll occasionally post about these two style guides and rules that are particularly interesting. I’ve added another category over in my sidebar for these posts–In Style. Do you have any style or grammar questions? Please leave them in the comments and I’ll work on addressing them in future posts.
Laura, thanks for a great post. I wonder what you think of “poetic license?” That is to say, in fiction writing all bets are off. Passive verbs are common in daily speak and therefore in dialogue. Run on sentences with short, clipped sentences create a cadence. Not all sentences need to be grammatically correct to communicate … in fact often the best way to communicate might not be strickly by the rules. So when is poetic license considered very bad grammar (like many who self-publish tend towards) and when is it the only way to fashion our prose?
I think all those things are important in fiction, and I’m especially a fan of varying sentence structure.
I think the trick is breaking grammar rules consistently and making them be part of your voice, or the way your character speaks, vs. doing it just to break rules. The style books are excellent for keeping the way you use language consistent throughout the story or novel.
My two cents: I think there are gradations, too. In dialogue, as you say, all bets are mostly off. Characters should speak as they would speak. One of my main characters writes professionally (and she is somewhat self-consciously old-fashioned in her use of language), so her dialogue needs to be gramatically correct. Others, not so much. In first person narration, the rules matter more (unless you’re working in dialect), but still it depends on the character (the narrative voice shouldn’t use words that the narrator wouldn’t know, for example). In third person narration, it should be correct (and appropriate for the audience). I think the main thing (as in any art form — this certainly applies in music, for example) is that to break the rules effectively you have to know the rules.
OTOH, The New Yorker magazine used to have a copy editor (I’m not sure of her exact title) and she went over every article before it was published, putting it into their style (which is quite nonstandard), and no writer got to question or challenge her changes. Her word was absolute, and like many of the staff members in those days, she had been there forever.
She never touched the fiction, though. There was a reason for that. 🙂
Two words: online subscription. $60 for two years ($35 for one) and I use it much more often than the book version (plus I can use it at home and at work, without lugging that huge book around). Completely searchable (of course), including the archives of the monthly Q&A (pretty much every month there’s something in the Q&A that makes me laugh out loud). And the website allows you to flag pages that you go to a lot.
I should have thought of that! I bet it’s easier to search for a specific term, too. And I sometimes read the AP Q and A online for fun. Next time there’s an update I’ll just go ahead and sign up for the online version. It’s the way things are going these days–Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, going to an exclusively online version.
The loss of the printed Britannica has unnerved some people I know, but the people who run the encyclopedia have pointed out that for many years the electronic version has been far more extensive than the print version. So, even if you like having the books (my parents had the book version, along with the atlas, the yearly updates, and the special little bookcase), those books are only a small portion of the full Britannica.
Great post, Laura.
I have the problem of whether to hyphenate all the time! I check it by googling it as one word and judge by what comes up! Great post!
Ooh! Hyphens would make a great grammar-oriented blog post. I might have to do that!
Sending another blog award your way, Laura! Oh, no! I see that someone else thought your blog was versatile too. That goes to show how fantastic your blog is 🙂
Love this! I have had many AP vs. Chicago debates over the years.
Is your book in Chicago or a mix of Chicago and the publishing house style? I always wonder if publishers (or newspapers) have their own deviations from whatever the industry standard is.
It’s basically *my* style, which is based on AP. Many eyes saw drafts, but there was not a rigorous editing process. I did NOT use a serial comma; I think they’re unnecessary in many instances. I like clean lines on a manuscript!
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Kristy. I’m still against the serial comma, but since I’m doing some publishing-oriented editing, I feel like I should get used to it. My previous novel is in AP Style, because the first-person protagonist is a small-town newspaper reporter who comments on grammar and style. It would be bizarre to change it into Chicago while my narrator is espousing AP!
Language is a living thing, so while I certainly support grammar and style guides, there also has to be room for evolution!
And the Oxford comma is . . . ?
Hi, Martha! It’s great to hear from you. It’s using a comma in a list before the “and” or “or.” Such as “eggs, biscuits, and jam” instead of “eggs, biscuits and jam.” The second version, without the Oxford comma, could mean biscuits with jam on them, whereas the first style clearly means three separate items.
The CMOS calls it the “serial comma.” Their usual example is something like this:
I had lunch with my parents, Mother Theresa, and the pope.
I had lunch with my parents, Mother Theresa and the pope.
Somewhat different. 🙂
I just finished reading “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”. I think you’d love it. It’s all about punctuation but is more entertaining than any style guide I’ve ever read. Have any of us actually read through an entire style guide? Jonathan told me about your blog; really nice. Thanks.
Hello, Joe! I’ve heard about Eats, Shoots & Leaves but I’ve never picked it up. Thanks for the suggestion. Good point about “reading” style guides. When I was in the newspaper world, I read every entry in the AP guide at one point or another, but certainly not consecutively.
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