CMS, Novels, and Formal Writing

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.

32 thoughts on “CMS, Novels, and Formal Writing”

  1. I know little about CMS, but as a writer I tend to write intuitively.
    As long as the language flows and facilitates the story I am not in the slightest bit interested in constraining it to anyone’s formal definition of style.

    I suspect that such novels as Riddley Walker would never have been realised had Hoban observed such constraints.

  2. I know — what the heck IS “formal writing”? The question of formality is one of register, of course, and linguists and writers are acutely tuned to it. I have to agree with James Enge, as you quote him: “A novel should be able to include formal styles, but never be enclosed by one.” A novelist may write in any of several different registers within the same novel, I find.

    I find that the prescriptive rules of CMS are increasingly uncomfortable for writers, especially fiction writers. No writer wants “mistakes” in their writing, but an ear for descriptive grammar, the grammar of how we actually talk, write, email, and text each other–which has its own rules–is often much more useful for copyeditors of fiction than in-depth knowledge of and knowledge of CMS rules.

  3. It seems to me—and my observations tend to confirm what the CMS editors have stated ever since (or even before) the 16th Ed. was published—that the current edition is the least prescriptive to date. In many areas, it seems the editors of CMS (and I know they’ve been taken to task for this by many prescriptivists) bent over backwards to favor descriptivism over prescriptivism, wherever feasible.

    A case in point is the very passage you quoted, Deanna: Singular “they” and “their” are by no means proscribed, except for formal writing, which I take to mean most nonfiction (certainly including textbooks).

    1. But because “formal writing” is not defined, Steve, anyone being asked to “follow CMS” (and most copyeditors, fiction or nonfiction, are) will have to avoid the singular “they.” I do not take the passage as not proscribing the usage for fiction at all.

  4. Can’t you ask the editor/publisher whether they consider the client’s work to be “formal” writing? For example, I’ve recently been reading a lot of Spider Robinson’s work. I can’t imagine a scenario in which his writing would be considered “formal,” unless that’s a blanket label for any published writing. (And no, I’m not trying to open the question of whether first person is less formal than third! *grin*)

    Of course, the question of “what is ‘formal writing’?” might be an excellent one to address to Carol Fisher Saller at CMS, too!

  5. It just doesn’t work that way for copyediting, Steve. The managing editor will expect copyeditors to follow CMS, and CMS says about “they” and “their” explicitly, “unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense.” My argument is exactly the one you’re making–that much fiction is not formal.

  6. I’d agree that fiction is rarely ever “formal writing.” I’ve learned to basically follow author style first, then house style, then CMS, in effect. Considering the horror stories I’ve heard of some copyeditors and proofreaders, I can see how this could be a problem. If a copyeditor doesn’t know better, she could get overzealous and follow CMS even when it doesn’t make sense to.

    I’m not sure that a managing would expect her copyeditors to treat fiction as formal writing though. At least, I don’t think any of the editors I’ve worked with would. I do more proofreading than copyediting though, so I could be off the mark.

    1. It really does depend on the publisher, Kimberly. I have managing editors who treat me as an utter professional and let me make whatever decisions I feel are best. I have also had managing editors who micromanaged me so severely to follow strict CMS that I quit working for that particular publisher, simply because I felt that my reputation would be damaged.

  7. Deanna, I think I drove the CE on my latest manuscript crazy. She was clearly following some sort of house style or maybe CMS regarding hyphen usage. So, for example, as you know:

    “The ice-cold water.”

    They hyphen used with the modifier, but not alone. You’d say:

    “The water was ice cold.”


    “The water was ice-cold.”

    The problem is that I have a lot of–not exactly neologisms, but linked words that describe things in my fantasy world. Vocabulary that’s part of the world building. So, for example, “wolf-guards.” She left that alone; the ones that she corrected, taking out the hyphen every time, were




    As in “The maid-girl saw the water in the moon-pool grow still.”

    So I stetted. Stet, stet, stet. Because she was adhering closely to a style that needed a little more flexibility to accommodate my style.

    As an author, I appreciate the effort that she took–and she really did a great job on the MS–but at the same time, I got a little annoyed after a while. Like, “Look, I know the rule, and clearly I am breaking it intentionally here. You are creating a lot of extra work for both of us by enforcing this rule so strictly.”

    1. Sarah, that is exactly the kind of thing that I feel CMS does a poor job of accommodating. Often, the best copyediting solutions for any given novel are found by closely analyzing the novel and determining what is most appropriate for it. CMS doesn’t allow for that kind of decision-making on the part of an experienced copyeditor, which is truly a pity.

  8. In my (admittedly limited) experience, your attitude—that grammar accents style, rather than style being what happens despite grammar—is what makes the difference between someone who can copyedit and someone who’s a great copyeditor.

  9. Having attended the college of the University of Chicago, I can assure you that fiction and poetry are not considered “formal writing” there :)

    That said, this particular advice is not contained in the grammar section on pronouns, where it might apply equally to fiction and non-fiction. It’s in a chapter about “Bias-Free Language” the whole of which would only very awkwardly apply to fiction. Paragraph 5.230, for example, includes the advice to “avoid irrelevant references to personal characteristics such as sex, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation, or social standing.” Good advice for non-fiction where the focus should be on the ideas, but that would make for some really odd fiction.

    You may also want to see paragraph 5.218 on Dialect: “Fiction writers often use dialect in dialogue. They may even decide to put the narrator’s voice in dialect. Such decisions fall outside the scope of this manual.” So CMS’s rules for Standard Written English only apply to fiction if the author wants them to.

  10. I agree entirely – although I’d certainly say it’s not just SFF writers. Imagine the effect of a formal voice on a novel such as Martin Amis’ Success? Or, indeed, any number of his (and others’) novels that rely heavily on character. So much can be created using changes in the POV of characters. It’s not hard to imagine a flawed narrator accidentally being ‘fixed’ in an edit!

    Completely with you on this one.

  11. “henceforth CMS, as it’s known in the industry”

    Is it? In the scholarly circles in which I run, it’s usually known as “Chicago” – but of course we ourselves are not copy-editors or publishers’ employees.

    I entirely agree: its usage rules are not appropriate for fiction. And one copy-editor I had the misfortune to work with needed to be informed that, even in the most formal nonfiction, you don’t wreak grammatical changes on _direct quotations_.

  12. It’s also probably worth noting that the whole Grammar & Usage chapter of CMS was new in the 15th Edition of 2003. Earlier editions only address matters of Punctuation & Spelling which would uncontroversially apply to both non-fiction and fiction.

    So I think it’d be perfectly reasonable to ask, when told to follow CMS, whether that means to follow just the time-tested rules on punctuation & spelling or whether they really mean to also follow the new-fangled and still less-developed rules on grammar & usage.

  13. OK, found my 15th Edition. Paragraph 5.204: “Gender bias. Consider the issue of gender-neutral language. On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers. What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality. There are many ways to achieve such language, but it takes thought and often some hard work. See 5.43, 5.51, 5.78.” (I did check and none of those sections permit the singular use of “they” as an option).

    As I say, earlier editions don’t have a Grammar and Usage section at all, and I couldn’t find any mention of the use of “they” as singular in the 14th. Can anyone cite the footnote permitting “they” as a singular in earlier editions or is that perhaps a memory of some other manual?

  14. Found the footnote in the 14th; it’s footnote 9 in the section on “The Editorial Function”, paragraph 2.98, “Watching for errors and infelicities”: “For the editor in search of guidance in avoiding sexist connotations the following sources might be suggested: Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender. Along with these and other authorities, the University of Chicago Press recommends the “revival” of the singular use of they and their, citing, as they do, its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.”

    They address the change in later editions at


  15. Whoops, I see Deanna responded while I was looking for the reference independently :)

    Anyways, when it comes to CMS, I like their maxim, quoted in the current preface from the original 1906 edition: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

  16. I think the fault here may not lie so much with the editors of the CMS but perhaps with the people (publishers) who use it and ask that it be adhered to with regards to fiction.

    Formal writing is, by its very nature, structured. It’s supposed to be structured for the likes of lawyers, academia, governments and any body or institute that needs language to be exact within a rigid framework so that there is no room for misinterpretation.

    Every novel should be a case unto itself, in its uniqueness, as it is, after all, supposed to be about storytelling and while there are a set of guidelines and principals to follow, editing, like writing, should be fluid.

    Just another humble editor’s opinion.

  17. Alexandra, I agree that

    “Formal writing is, by its very nature, structured. It’s supposed to be structured for the likes of lawyers, academia, governments and any body or institute that needs language to be exact within a rigid framework so that there is no room for misinterpretation.”


    This whole discussion makes me think of my Prime Directive in copyediting: clarity. Copyediting style should never obscure the writing. Copyediting style should be transparent–practically invisible.

    In my work I’ve found that if a copyediting style decision makes a word or phrase or clause or sentence jump out to a reader in a way not intended by the author, that style should be rethought, abandoned, or modified. (Please note that poetry and experimental fiction are another topic entirely.)

    And if an author’s stylistic mistake — spelling a name one way in one place and another way in another place, or using a serial comma in one sentence but not in another, or using possessive ‘s in a nonstandard way — makes a reader pull up and say “Wha!?” then that mistake should be fixed. Consistency of spelling, usage, punctuation, and grammar function transparently, to make the prose clear, so the reader isn’t pulled up short, out of the narrative, to look at the word or the printing on the page and think, “Is that right?”

    Bad grammar mistakes can do that, and so can rigid copyediting. I’ll always remember working on a mystery, as a young assistant to the managing editor, and hearing a heated argument. The ME insisted that all numbers in dialogue be spelled out, per the CMS rules of the day (the early 80s).

    The acquiring editor of the book insisted that this would make readers stop, break out of the story, and wonder what the hell was going on on that page. And she was right.

  18. Ellen, yes! I see so much of my job as helping the author avoid what I call “WTF moments” for the reader. I help ensure the reader doesn’t have to stop to try to puzzle out what the author means, isn’t pulled out of the story by an inconsistency or error, and can simply keep turning the pages and stay immersed, as every author intends. My work, by its nature, should be invisible to the reader and should never interfere with the author’s voice.

  19. I think the OED came out in favor of allowing they/their as plural forms for he/she a couple years back. I remember quoting it to justify my rewording of a technical document that was chock-a-block with he/she and his/her to the point of distraction.

    Regarding CMOS, the book often comes across as overly formal, but if you subscribe to their monthy FAQ the editors are very liberal in their responses and draw distinctions between formal, informal and ‘whatever makes it clearest for the reader.’

    I like their CDROM (14th edition)–it’s faster and much more convenient than the giant book, but it’s only for PC; no Mac version. Seems they’ve now dropped the CD completely in favor of online subscription.

  20. OK, found my 15th Edition. Paragraph 5.204: “Gender bias. Consider the issue of gender-neutral language. On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers either to resort to nontraditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers. What is wanted, in short, is a kind of invisible gender neutrality. There are many ways to achieve such language, but it takes thought and often some hard work. See 5.43, 5.51, 5.78.” (I did check and none of those sections permit the singular use of “they” as an option).

  21. Hmmm. Interesting points. Being trained with AP Style I’ve never felt comfortable putting a comma in front on an “and” … which is about all my familiarity with CMS (which, as an acronym meant “content management system” to me at first glance). That said, I agree that fiction writing is rarely formal … unless on purpose to serve the story, so confining it to grammar indiscriminately could be detrimental to the storytelling. Then again, I’m kind of an odd puppy, so I’d take what I say with a grain of salt. :-)

  22. Hey Deanna. I’m an INTJ too and lately have been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick. As I read this post, I thought it would really be sad if writing like his was watered down by trying to force it into adherence with some formal rules. As you say, an author’s voice, especially in a genre like sci fi, often best reveals itself in the ways that they bend the rules.

    It’s interesting that as INTJ’s we both come at it that way, especially since I think a lot of people would expect INTJ’s to be perfectionistic and demand things be technically correct. But for me it’s all about the goal of the project and the goal of a sci fi book isn’t correctness, it’s to entertain, provoke thought and help the reader lose him or herself (not themselves haha) in the story.

  23. Don’t know much about copyediting, but what you say seems to ring true. I’d hate reading books if they were all the same. All sounds like a matter of extreme subjectivity.

  24. As someone who has written research papers and legal briefs, I can tell you that there is a world of difference in the style of how they are written compared to the novel I’m writing. But we all know that that! Do we not?

    As a free-speller, I do let my beta readers know which words are intentionally spelled the way that spell them. Don’t worry, I’m not too radical in my novel.

    The main thing is that the story flows. I sometimes use too many “old” words and my beta readers tell me ease up on them so that they’re not running to a wordbook every other page.

  25. As a copyeditor, I value CMS as a starting point and a base to work from. In fiction editing, especially in genre fiction where there is so much made-up worldbuilding, I also use my own judgment and work to preserve the author’s style. Where I really need it is for things like punctuation and formatting where no one’s quite sure what the rule is, and both ways look wrong. For that, it’s really helpful to have a guide to fall back on, so I can’t say that use of CMS is outdated or wrong, just that we need our employers to accept that there are exceptions.

    Which is to say, I think CMS has a lot of value, but that’s because publishers give me the leeway to use my own discretion about when to follow it, as long as the author and I can back up our choices by showing how they help the integrity of the story.

  26. Deanna, I suspect that most managing editors don’t give it all that much thought when they say “Follow CMS.” You’re assuming a level of calculation that, in my experience, simply isn’t happening. They use CMS because that’s what the publishing house has used for a zillion years, and what all the other publishing houses have used for a zillion years, etc., etc.

    Remember that most publishers of fiction didn’t start out that way. Publishing is chock full of crap that gets perpetuated because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” Everyone is too overworked and underpaid to take a lot of time formalizing changes in practice and rewriting procedural documents. (Oh, holy Crom, if only I had the time for that!)

    Consider also that CMS is published by an academic press. A HUGE academic publisher with a large trade list, but nonetheless academic. The staff are the writers of the book, and it stands to reason that their own manual would be oriented more toward academic publishing (“formal writing”) than not.

    Speaking strictly from the concerns of my own academic-publishing, managing-ed staff: more than anything, they want consistency. Preferably consistency across all our books. (But we’ll reluctantly settle for consistency within each book under certain circumstances.) If one’s paramount criterion is “institutional consistency,” then one tends to be prescriptivist.

    Fiction is, by definition, not consistent between books. It’s antithetical to art to make all works conform to the same style of writing. Fiction publishers who don’t know this are, in a word, ignorant. Fortunately, the vast majority of them are savvy to this and are only looking for basic consistency (e.g. is the character’s name spelled the same throughout); plot- and story-logic; and grammar and punctuation that facilitate, rather than impede, meaning between the writer and reader.

    I should note that what facilitates or impedes meaning depends entirely on what meaning the fiction writer is trying to convey. That’s where a copyeditor proves her chops: in identifying what the author’s aim is.

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