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The Irrelephants of Style

Clearly fiction and poetry bring with them a different set of rules (i.e. basically none) to grammar and style, how does one deal with the challenges presented there? Is there any point at which an author’s decision to subvert grammatical norms goes beyond stylistic playing and becomes just plain aggravating?

First, I should explain for my readers who aren’t editors that when I talk about “style,” I’m talking about style guides. Almost any place that publishes text will use some kind of style guide, which serves two major purposes: 1. Tell editors what to do when there’s more than one correct option, like when they’re wondering whether to use the serial comma or which words to capitalize in a headline or chapter title. 2. Make sure multiple editors all do the same thing when they confront such arbitrary choices, so text is consistent throughout the publication. You don’t want headlines saying “Healthcare Advisor Caught in Email Scandal” on page 1 and “Health care adviser caught in e-mail scandal” on the jump page.

The other thing I should mention is that I don’t actually edit fiction. I’ve worked nearly exclusively in nonfiction, and mostly in journalism. There are a number of situations in which I will ignore the rules of style and sometimes even grammar: Journalists don’t try to force direct quotes to conform to written English standards or style guides, though we will choose the most readable and consistent-with-house-style options for spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. I will sometimes allow writers to use casual idioms and slang to add a little color, but only if it’s appropriate to the content (e.g. no jokey internet-speak in, say, a story about a company’s bankruptcy and layoffs). In headlines, the content is so strongly dictated by the space available that most rules go out the window, hence journalism’s development of “headlinese.” Feature stories, soft news stories, columns, and editorials, where the writer’s distinctive voice is part of the draw of the piece, are generally allowed more leeway with some of the least-essential rules, but you won’t find anything too out there. None of Cormac McCarthy’s refusal to use quotation marks, for example.

My rule is that for a writer to be allowed to flout the rules, the breach must add more than it detracts from the piece. Accuracy and clarity are always my first concerns, but consistency is worth something, too. Copy editors in journalism also strive to maintain the tone of their publication throughout, to provide a unified feel to dozens of stories written and edited by a diverse staff. In essence, the publication has its own voice, which takes precedence over the voice of an individual writer. So if a turn of phrase is clever or well constructed, but it invites an inaccurate reading, or it’s impossible to reconcile smoothly with the rest of the sentence, or it’s harshly discordant with the rest of the publication, out it goes. But if it’s euphonious and expressive, if it will draw the reader in without confusing them, if it’s appropriate to the story and the publication, but it violates the style guide? Well, that I will leave in.

But people who copy edit fiction are usually working alone on a discrete project, so they don’t have to be so concerned about a unifying tone, and they’re editing for an audience that sees the writer’s voice as part of the draw of a story, rather than one that expects the writer to fade into the background, maintaining the just-the-facts style we expect from news writing.

So since fiction editors clearly have room to ignore the rules, I asked a few of them to weigh in. But as it turns out, they follow most of the same rules I do.

They all value clarity:

My guideline for fiction is whether I think a reader will stumble over it. Sometimes… I crowdsource it to see what others, both editors and noneditors, think. If it seems awkward, then I change/”normalize” it. If not, then I leave it.

–Katie Freeman

If the writer’s intent is clear, I will let grammatical issues slide somewhat. … That having been said, abusing grammar for the sake of “artistry” is an interesting concept few since the times of Joyce and e.e. cummings have done effectively. Be careful. Very careful.

Daniel Callahan

They all value consistency:

Stylistic creativity becomes annoying when it’s careless or inconsistent. Preserving the authorial voice is clearly paramount, and is part of the relationship of creative trust between an author and their editor, but there’s a clear qualitative difference between a writer at the top of their game playing with the form and function of language and someone who can’t quite keep up with the narrative style they’ve adopted. This is when it’s aggravating—when it’s not clear whether inconsistencies or oddities in form or usage are intentional, resulting in pages and pages of queries.

Louise Maskill

In [Tom Wolfe’s latest novel] Back to Blood, whenever a character was thinking, instead of just using italics as we usually see in novels, Wolfe had a block of six colons before and after the sentence, like this: ::::::I don’t believe this!:::::: He uses ellipses and em dashes in unusual ways, too. There were also deliberate misspellings in dialog sections where Wolfe was trying to mimic English spoken with a Russian accent (e.g., “I vill zee to eet” for “I will see to it”). And Wolfe has always been known for making up words entirely, like “luxodontic” to describe a woman’s dazzling smile. So your average dictionary or style manual isn’t going to help you there. You have to work with a comprehensive style sheet to ensure consistency.

Karen Wise

And they all think that nonstandard usages should serve the story:

I have worked on a manuscript that was staggeringly beautiful, mind-numbingly disturbing, and grammatically incorrect in many places. … In that instance, the unique feel set by the writer’s voice was, I think, integral to the story itself. The story could have been told in a much colder, much more remote and distanced voice that matched the publisher’s style guide, but the story itself would have lost some of its immediacy and some of its power.

Jillian Bell

In a first-person narrative, in particular, quirky grammar or vocabulary helps to convey the narrator’s personality. I recently edited a novella written in the first person where the author (narrator) had made up some words and footnoted them with explanations—quite an unusual thing to do in fiction, but it worked because it suited the narrative voice.

Averill Buchanan

The biggest difference between me and fiction editors had more to do with the way the publication process works. For those not in the publishing industry, when an editor queries something in a manuscript, they’re asking the author a question about something they were confused by. Journalism copy editors do ask writers to clarify points when needed, but the writers don’t usually see what edits we made before their piece goes to press. In fiction, authors review and approve or reject all copy editing changes before the book is published. One editor writes that the key to figuring what’s a mistake and what’s an intentional subversion is to query, query, query.

I recently queried an author about the term “ferment a revolution” in dialogue. I pointed out that the correct term would be “foment a revolution” but said I thought he might be intentionally using “ferment” because it seemed like something the character would say. I then asked if he wanted me to correct it. He did not, and I know he appreciated me asking rather than just changing the term.

Tammy Ditmore

The reason we’re all so much in agreement, letter writer, is that one of the jobs a copy editor does is serve as the first reader of a (nearly) finished work. Content and development editors have seen an article or manuscript go through too many revisions to have a clear-eyed view of it anymore. Copy editors come in fresh, the way the audience will, and try to look at the writing through a reader’s eyes. We find what confuses us, what annoys us, what we think is more flourish than function, and we smooth these things out so the next reader, the one who’s paid to read this, gets clean, clear copy. What bothers the reader bothers us; we look out for readers because we are readers.


One comment on “The Irrelephants of Style

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