Tag Archives: ap style

The tyranny of the style book

Do you really believe there are editors who run around agonizing about commas, stressing over where to put the hyphen, and otherwise driving themselves to drink over tiny fussy little minutiae?

If you look hard enough, you can find places where they ask for help with those questions. (“Should this have a hyphen? Augh! I’ve been near self-harm for hours over this! Or is it self harm, since it’s a compound noun! I can’t even contemplate suicide correctly!”) Many are novices who decided to be editors and then to learn the English language (that’s not the correct order in which we do this), but some others are professional copy editors. And very often the question will quote The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Book, or some other reference, asking for a ruling.

What’s wrong with this? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes one works in a guide-constrained environment where one of the editor’s primary duties is to conform a document to this or that style, including an internal style guide. In those cases, I understand the agonizing up to a point. One good example would be academic writing, where style fascism is the norm.

But at some point, even in those cases, there come guide-governed situations where the guide does not deliver a clear answer. Then what?

Then use your best judgment based on years of experience, familiarity with the style guide’s intent, and your own damn common sense, that’s what. Those are why you do what you do, and are in the position you are in.

What shocks me more: strict editing to a style guide, and agonizing over some point of punctuation order, when it’s not a requirement. I am serious. The editor views the CMS, or some other style reference, as a holy book whose first version came down graven on stone tablets.

It will eventually fail them anyway, because our language is too diverse for perfect coverage, even by such a voluminous reference as the Chicago Manual. But they are missing the point.

The point is that an editor has years of broad expertise with the English language. It can involve one dialect or many, but it probably began before kindergarten and involved reading hundreds of thousands of pages in varying styles of superb English before the age of twelve. Under normal circumstances, which is to say writing that does not require style guide conformity as a baseline expectation, the point of being an editor is not to worry oneself to death over whether one is in proper and full compliance with a style guide.

The point is to know the language well enough, to consult the various guides where they can be helpful, and to have enough guts and brainpower to make judgments that will make the book the best it can be for the target audience.

That is what we are here to do. Our work is to do all the things to the manuscript content that will help it be its best. What if the narrator doesn’t use upper case? Those who live in style guide tyranny might simply get busy with the Shift key. I might, too–but only after I’d reviewed the ms and satisfied myself that all lower case didn’t work well in this context. If the author’s style and syntax work well to communicate with his or her audience, I’m not likely to change those aspects. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the defaults, but they are not inviolable. There are times to break every rule in service of the greater good.

You aren’t supposed to cross a doubled solid yellow line when driving, at least in the US. That’s usually because that would take you into the oncoming lane in a dangerous situation (such as passing on a curve or while cresting a hill), which could produce a serious kinetic energy problem. It’s a good rule. Most of the time most people should comply. But what if an accident is imminent, and the only way to prevent it is to cross that line? What if there is a serious emergency meriting the risk? I’d rather get a ticket for illegal passing (and there are police stupid enough to give such a ticket, trust me; I once received an even stupider one) than be cut out of the wreckage by the jaws of life. Or have my remains cut out at leisure once they attend to everyone they can still save.

Style guides aren’t law books, and they are not crutches for indecision. If the work requires style guide conformity, all right; but if an uncovered situation arises, that’s why an editor has experience and judgment. It’s time to use them. That’s why not everyone can do this. If one needs to explain a decision to the client, that’s what margin comments are for.

One has to know the rules well enough to judge when to ignore them.

There’s a great part in one of W.E.B. Griffin’s books, the ones before his son started performing some unspecified percentage of the work, doing proportionate damage. Griffin was a military/police/intelligence fiction author of some note. While he had his weaknesses, the strengths were great enough to outweigh those failings. In this situation, the US Army is getting ready to invade Cuba after we bungled the Bay of Pigs. It is necessary to move an armored division by rail from somewhere inland to New Orleans, so it can be loaded for the voyage. There is a fascinating discussion of the logistical headaches involved in entraining about 450 tanks plus all their supporting people and equipment, the sort of detail into which Griffin always knew when it was time to deep-dive. In the end, it comes down to an engineer company that is already loaded, and a colonel tasked with getting things moving. The colonel has an idea how the engineer company can help get the division’s vehicles loaded on rail cars that are showing up with mixed consists. He wants to use their forklifts and other hoisting equipment.

The company commander is the POV character, and he is respectfully dismissive. He figures that the colonel probably considers himself the first person ever to think of using forklifts to load tanks. The captain thus states that it’s against regulations, and worse yet, that it would likely result in the equipment’s eventual destruction due to exceeding safety parameters, which, sir, as the colonel can surely see, exist to prevent such disasters. And therefore, with respect, sir, he can’t do it.

The colonel asks the obvious question, paraphrased from my memory: “Captain, has it ever occurred to you that your goddamn intact drag lines would look pretty silly sitting on a Cuban beach if the division’s tanks were still hung up in Texas waiting for proper train consists?”

When I see a style guide used like a crutch or a bible in situations where there is no specific rule that it must govern, I feel like I’m watching someone who would end up on the beach in Cuba with functional rock crushers, forklifts, and other construction equipment, having not brought the armored fighting vehicles that might make the invasion succeed. I laugh every time at this picture. “Mi comandante, the norteamericanos have landed on the beach!” “With what?” “Señor, they appear to be construction engineers. They have brought a road grader, some forklift trucks, and a backhoe.” “That is all? No tanks?” “None, mi comandante.” “Teniente, if you have been drinking rum on duty, your next assignment will involve cutting sugar cane–and you will not be supervising the process.”

Use your judgment. If you are afraid to use your judgment, overcome this unbecoming fear. Your client depends upon your judgment. If it was just about a damn style guide, the client could read that herself. You’re here to make decisions in her best interests.

Make them. Have and share good reasons for them. Be ready to have them questioned.

Being questioned is not time to wallow in imposter syndrome. Being questioned is time to show off the experience and consideration you invested. Explain your thought process. Show your client the level of effort you expend for what she pays. You should be proud of it.

The clients who write best tend to be the most questioning. They are the clients who drive you to become better.