A Question of Style

Taipei Writer’s Group just finished work on and published its second anthology, Night Market. With ten different writers working on different word processing software on different operating systems, there was the potential for all sorts of inconsistencies in style. I’m not talking about writing style; the point of the anthology was to have many different writers using their own voices and their own writing style. That’s romantic. What I’m talking about is distinctly unromantic. I mean the small, niggly details of consistency in punctuation and how various words are written out. Stuff like how you write numbers, dates, values, words in languages other than English. I mean how to put in em-dashes and whether there’s a space on either side of an em-dash or not. Unsexy stuff.

Writers don’t want to concentrate on that stuff. They want to write their stories, and rightly so. However, if the end product is riddled with inconsistencies—between the stories, or worse still, within the individual stories themselves—then readers are going to notice it and it will distract them from their stories. I’m reminded of something a drama teacher told me about people who chew gum on stage during a play or a presentation. “They won’t remember how good you were,” she said. “They’ll just remember that you were chewing gum.” Why risk a reader’s connection with your story is broken due to an inconsistency in style?

I imagine, and one day hope to find out, that if you’re being published by a company, they’ll have a copy-editor checking those kinds of things for you. There’ll be an in-house Manual of Style, based on something like The Chicago Manual of Style, perhaps with some extra in-house additions. But self-published writers will need to take care of all of it themselves. I’d imagine it’s a good idea to do the same kind of work for anything you’re planning to submit for publication, in order to show that you know about and appreciate such things.

An obvious place to start is getting hold of the style manuals in question. Another recommended book is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. There’s plenty of online information as well. This is one site I’ve used:

http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/index.html

However, I’ve also found that there’s always going to be something else that isn’t completely covered in these style guides. Also, the style guides occasionally disagree, in the same way that dictionaries disagree whether some compound words are two distinct words, two hyphenated words, or in fact one word.

Here’s an excellent post from The Editor’s Blog on the subject of numbers, as one example of the sorts of things that need to be considered.:

http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/01/13/numbers-in-fiction/

For our anthology, this included things like which form of Pinyin (the romanisation of Chinese words) we would use. There are several versions, and while we’d like to use the most up-to-date (and presumably the most correct) some places are so well-known by names in an older system that it would seem odd to use the newer name. (Political issues cloud this too, but that’s another story). Therefore, we decided to devise our own style sheet to cover some of these issues, the idea being that if all the writers followed these, it would make things easier at the end.

I’d had experience with this before. My day-job is an editor/content creator for an ESL publishing company. The company generally follows the Chicago style, but there’s lots that isn’t covered. The English editors basically sat down for a whole afternoon and hammered it all out. We have to occasionally review it and add more things to it as they crop up. It was worth the time, though; our publications have internal consistency now, and it’s saved a lot of time during the copy-editing / proofreading part of our jobs.

That was the template we followed with the style sheet for our anthology. Of course, there were dozens of things that weren’t covered in our sheet, and we did have some long conversations to agree on a few of the points, but I was pretty happy by how the whole thing turned out.

It also made the job of unifying the ten separate stories into a single document a easier. That’s not to say that preparing the anthology for both paperback printing and e-book form wasn’t painful. We learned a lot about the value of setting up a template for all final draft submissions. (We didn’t do that. We paid for it in time and strained eyeballs. We’ll do it next time!) However, it could have been a whole lot worse if we hadn’t started out with a style sheet that covered a lot of the stuff that would end up needing to be unified. It will be improved on for next time, and presumably, the time after that.

So there you go. It’s unsexy, but necessary, like paying your taxes or taking out the rubbish bin and sorting out the recycling. My best advice is think about these things and get into the habit as early as possible, meaning that your own editing and polishing process can concentrate on making your story the best story it can be, rather than fixing up the admittedly annoying yet annoyingly vital style stuff.

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