Fiction and Style Guides

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]unctuation and grammar are tools in fiction, not rules.

I’m not sure I can ever say this enough: intent matters.

Pretty much every style guide out there will tell you that fiction should be clear, and the “rules” of grammar are not strictly enforced because intent matters.

Many, many books would not be the same without their comma splices or bad grammar.

A comma splice is different from a period and a semicolon. The job of punctuation in fiction is to guide and clarify, but it should not to be noticed. When you see fiction that’s been too strictly edited, you can tell. And it’s terribly hard to read.

Good editing should be invisible.

There are conventions to every medium. For me, as an editor, it’s important to understand my medium: fiction. It’s no secret that I don’t believe the Chicago Manual of Style is the best guide for fiction. They don’t believe they are either, so we’re kinda on the same page. I still use the CMoS, but strict adherence would make for a very unpleasant read. I certainly use CMoS, but it’s not something I will defer to simply because they said so. They expect the use of good judgement just as much I do.

Periods CMOS

Many rules that work well in nonfiction are better forgotten in novels. […] Your job is to make sure that readers don’t have to wait too long for the context to make the meaning clear.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online; “Chicago Style Q&A”; “Manuscript Preparation”

Personally, I prefer to use as little punctuation as necessary while maintaining clarity. If you don’t, readers notice the punctuation first. They try to suss out what it’s supposed to do, if it’s correct, and what it means instead of staying in the story. They won’t notice punctuation they’re accustomed to seeing regularly. They will notice extra punctuation they don’t actually need, and often readers will start analyzing it. (Heh, or maybe that’s just me! 😉 )

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I dislike CMS for fiction; it is geared toward nonfiction. And despite the fact that some production editors like copyeditors to follow strict CMS, I’ve yet to talk to a single editor (and I’ve talked to many about this) who feels the same way.

Deanna Hoak; “The Importance of Style Sheets,” March 30th, 2006

When I see an abundance of colons, semicolons, and commas, I cringe. It’s not that it’s wrong (although many people really don’t know how to use them properly), but that there is no need for them all. If you need that much punctuation, then you aren’t very focused on your storytelling. Stories, even the most complex stories, should be mostly easy to read. It might not be as easy to “get,” but a reader shouldn’t need to reread a sentence to understand it. 

 “In fiction, of course, they [comma splices] are old news, and a copy editor should respect them and edit only when they cause problems.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education; “Help Me Understand My Copy Editor: a Lingua Franca Dialogue, Part I,” Lucy Ferris, July 11, 2012

I’ve seen some editors that disagree with me, and they prefer strict adherence. It’s not something that I think is worth arguing over, but it’s probably something authors should consider when they are looking for an editor. If you’re an author that believes the CMoS is what you need to stick to, then make sure you find an editor that feels the same way. But understand that your intent may get lost in the shuffle. There is a certain quality an author brings that transcends strict adherence to guides and grammar. Evocative and engaging language sometimes loses its effectiveness when punctuated properly.

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Cheryl Murphy is Asian with brown hair in a single braid and a smirk.

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