English is hard. According to the Oxford Royale Academy, it’s one of the top five most difficult languages in the world today. So why do we, as writers and especially as editors, accept making our jobs that much more difficult by using so many different style guides?
Maintaining the attitude of a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist when editing, particularly for fiction and memoir, is crucial to preserving an author’s voice.
Opinions are like . . . you know: everybody’s got one. House editing style guides and preferences are no different. Browse through any random collection of imprint house publications, periodicals, or online articles, and you’ll witness a menagerie of guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Associated Press Stylebook(AP), and a smattering of personal preferences seemingly chosen at random. The resulting style format can resemble an amalgamation of spare parts—something akin to a Frankenstein’s monster of house style. The curious aspect is the specific, obscure details individual editors decide to take a stand on—the hills upon which they choose to fight and die.
Developmental editors get to tinker with literary Lego, develop complex relationships with authors, and directly impact the narrative’s creation and final result.
From a copyeditor’s perspective, in-box article submissions can carry a vibe akin to the wild west, with authors throwing around rambunctious punctuation all willy-nilly: random ellipses with ambiguous intent, dashes dropped seemingly at random, and the mother of all punctuation faux pas, the exclamation point! What’s a periodical copyeditor to do?
“Please take back out every Oxford comma,” a journalistic-minded author of mine once said. I began my editing career using Associated Press (AP) Style, so I understood his suggestion, but the house style at my current company mandated the use of the serial comma. We had a short, spirited, and (thankfully) respectful debate about it, and ultimately house style prevailed. I convinced the author that the meaning in his writing remained unchanged and using a serial comma accomplished something important to the company—it maintained consistency throughout their titles.