It’s been a while since I came out with a copyediting post, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the usefulness of The Chicago Manual of Style (henceforth CMS, as it’s known in the industry) for copyediting fiction. CMS is an excellent style guide, and when I edited college textbooks, I relied on it very heavily. Copyeditors–fiction or nonfiction–are usually asked to follow CMS by the managing or production editors who hire them. (These editors ferry books through the production process and hire the freelancers but often don’t read the books all the way through.)
SF/F has a strong genre community, though, and I’m in a somewhat unique position for a copyeditor in that I am a part of this community in which I specialize. I attend SF/F conventions and appear on panels. I talk to authors and editors one-on-one, am friends with many of them, and most people in the genre know who I am. Because I am interested in doing the best job that I can, I speak with authors and editors about my work and about what they expect from a copyedit. What I’ve found, over the years, is that most SF/F editors and authors do not–adamantly do not, in many cases–want copyeditors to apply The Chicago Manual of Style to novels in any kind of rigorous sense at all.
I have no idea if this type of thing is news to the folks who produce CMS. In all, it may not make much difference to them, since, as I noted, copyeditors are usually asked to follow CMS anyway.
Why should there be such a disconnect, though, between what the authors and editors want and what is actually done? (And there isn’t at every publisher, but it certainly is the case at some.) In fiction–unlike nonfiction, in which authors often get significantly less say regarding edits–authors are able to stet (revert) any change they don’t like. If they’re unhappy that the copyeditor followed CMS, then, they can simply stet the changes that bother them. It’s never seemed to me to be in anyone’s best interests for that to have to happen.
I think the reason for the disconnect hit me when I was reading the latest edition of CMS this week, though. In contrast to previous editions (one of which even had a footnote noting that the usage was acceptable), this edition specifically notes that the use of they as a gender-neutral singular (which is ubiquitous in spoken English) is to be avoided: “Many people substitute the plural they and their for the singular he or she. Although they and their have become common in informal usage, neither is considered acceptable in formal writing, so unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense.”
The critical words in that quotation are formal writing, and I think they illustrate why so many of the authors and editors I’ve spoken with believe that much of CMS isn’t relevant to fiction. Is a novel “formal writing”? Dialogue certainly isn’t–the whole purpose of dialogue is to sound as much like speech as possible; unless one has a character who is a pedant, dialogue is not supposed to sound formal. The same would certainly be said for a first-person novel. Whether any novel at all is “formal,” in fact, seems like a matter for the author and the editor to decide.
I asked SF/F authors on my Facebook and Twitter feeds whether they considered novels to be “formal” writing. A few replied that they thought it would depend upon the novel. Laura Anne Gilman noted, “If by ‘formal’ we mean a standardized voice…oh hell no.” Sarah Prineas said, “I’d take ‘formal’ to mean ‘adhering to all grammar and punctuation rules,’ which would lead me to say no.” Clay Griffith said, “I distinguish novel writing from academic writing, which demands adherence to specific formats such as Chicago Manual.” James Enge made the astute observation, “A novel should be able to include formal styles, but never be enclosed by one.”
For my part, as an experienced copyeditor (and as one with an INTJ personality, who always wants to know, foremost, “Does it work?”), I analyze each book individually rather than apply a style wholesale. While I would never insert they as a singular when an author didn’t use it that way, neither would I alter the usage unless given specific instructions to do so. I feel similarly about many of the rules presented in CMS, and I believe this is part of the reason authors and editors appreciate my work. Fiction, to me, is not “formal writing” in the sense that’s traditionally meant. Authors’ styles and voices are nuanced and delicate and individual and are part of what sells books; it is important to work within those styles in order to avoid damaging them.
I'm a freelance copyeditor specializing in fantasy and science fiction. SF/F novels I have copyedited have been finalists for (and have sometimes won) the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, Endeavour, Golden Spur, John W. Campbell Memorial, Quill, Locus, Philip K. Dick, British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards. In 2007 I became the first and only copyeditor ever short-listed for a World Fantasy Award.