Advice for Fiction Writers (and Editors), Chicago‑Style

Since long before the days of email, the Manuscript Editing Department at the University of Chicago Press has had the honor of replying to comments and questions from users of The Chicago Manual of Style, usually typed but sometimes written in longhand or even called in by phone. Some reach out to complain about a guideline or plead for a change, whereas others simply want to offer their compliments. If a typo makes it into CMOS—heaven forbid—there will be a steady stream of notes and emails, some gleeful, pointing it out.

One topic raised with regularity is the wish that Chicago’s guidelines were better suited to the tasks of fiction writers and editors. The Manual was developed primarily for the formal, nonfictional world of academic books and journal articles. Its advice doesn’t always anticipate the needs of more creative genres.

Readers ask for advice on topics commonly encountered by novelists and their copyeditors:

  • Can dialogue contain a semicolon? Parentheses?
  • How do you format a character’s thoughts?
  • Does an abbreviation have to be spelled out if a character speaks it?
  • How do you format text messages between characters?
  • Is a comma needed after a dialogue tag that introduces a speech?
  • Why doesn’t Chicago expand CMOS to accommodate fiction writers?

For the last few years, editor Russell Harper and I have used the Fiction+ section of the Shop Talk blog to address questions like these. While not an officially sanctioned extension of CMOS, its posts are informed by our many years of fielding questions from the public at the CMOS Online Q&A and by our work developing content for the last few editions of the Manual. If a new topic presents itself in future, one of us might address it, but we believe the series is comprehensive enough that it’s time to consider it complete.

Why Style Matters in Every Kind of Writing

The rules in any given style guide, including CMOS, can seem arbitrary and even illogical. But the idea behind such rules—from capitalizing “President” before a name to adding the last comma in “lions, tigers, and bears”—is to do things the same way in the same context for the sake of consistency and efficiency. Copyeditors learn the rules so we don’t have to stop and ponder every time we come to a choice of style.

Inconsistency in styling can compete for the reader’s attention. The last thing any writer wants is for the reader to be pulled out of the story to ponder why one character asks for “ten dollars” while another claims to be “$10 short.” That’s why copyeditors choose a primary style guide and dictionary to use as default references.

Sometimes, a chosen guide fails in a given context, omitting advice on the topic or dictating a style that clashes with the writer’s purpose. That’s why at Fiction+ we encourage independent and creative solutions outside the rules when “authoritative” solutions don’t work.

Do Style Guidelines Hinder Creativity?

Creative writers may happily flout convention, but the most successful ones know exactly what rules they are flouting and why. Effective writing comes from the intelligent use—and abuse—of language. In creative writing, having choices is everything. Writers who are unable to render formal English when it fits the occasion will inevitably be limited. Their plots and characters will be less diverse, their manuscripts and cover letters less professional, their social media inept.

Creative writers may happily flout convention, but the most successful ones know exactly what rules they are flouting and why.

And now more than ever before, creative writers find themselves in charge of their own promotion, writing content for interview Q&As, blog tours, guest posts, and webinars as well as for their own blogs and websites. Moreover, such content does not always pass through the hands of a trained copyeditor before it is posted for all the world to see, maybe forever. All the more reason for writers to keep resources like CMOS and a good dictionary at hand.

Knowing the rules (or being able to look them up) gives writers and their editors the choice of when to follow them or break them, and it inspires options for doing so. It allows writers to break the mold in their creative efforts while presenting a fluent and professional voice when promoting themselves and their work.

Looking Ahead

Here at Chicago, we continually look for ways to keep tabs on the needs of our readers. CMOS Shop Talk, the Q&A, Twitter, and Facebook—even our merchandise store—allow us to try out ideas that go beyond what the Manual covers, not only as a service to readers looking for answers but as a testing ground for new material (and refinements) for CMOS.

Fiction+, too, has been a kind of experiment. It’s our hope that this archive will serve to guide and inspire writers and editors of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Cartoon of a writer typing by Mohamed Hassan (via PxHere), licensed under CC0 1.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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