The Perils of Fashion
By Brenna Lyons
Over the years, several of my publishers and I have decided that “There’s a right way, a wrong way, and the Chicago Manual of Style way.” I’d further extend that to M-W dictionary and all other resource books that the publishing industry depends on, because it’s not right to pick on one esteemed resource and leave the others out.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that there’s something wrong with having rules and resource books to cover them. Maybe my problem is that I’m comfortable with math. In math, the rules don’t change overmuch. You may find a new way to calculate something…something more precise, but 2+2 will always equal 4. An answer of 3 will always be wrong. That’s not so with language.
Just look at the Oxford/serial comma. How many times in the last two decades has the use or not of it caused authors to rip their hair out in frustration at being told they are doing it “wrong?” Too many to count, I’d wager. To be blunt, as long as the author is using one or the other consistently, why bother changing something that is so highly contested and invisible to the reader, to begin with? The simple answer is: “Fashion demands it.”
Language depends on fashions. Once upon a time, it was the fashion to have long, introspective lapses in books, tons of adverbs, and dialog tags running willy nilly all over the place. Now, we’re in a more sparse or at least timed to the action descriptive phase, and editors warn against the overuse of ly adverbs and dialog tags.
If you’re not familiar with the two most famous quotes on fashion, I will share them with you:
“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde
“The fashion wears out more clothing than the man.” William Shakespeare
It doesn’t surprise me that writers would recognize the perils of fashion and say something about it. It makes perfect sense to me. And thus begins my rant. Strap yourselves in and be warned that it’s coming.
I work with seven publishing houses, two owned by the same core group, which means they share an editing structure. That leaves me with six houses doing completely different things. One will use X version of CMoS and B version of M-W. Another will use the same version of M-W but a different version of CMoS. A third… Then you throw their house styles into the mix, which are based on what they’ve encountered in their own experience and have nothing to do with the experiences of other publishing houses and the decisions made on those subjects.
Even when I tried databasing the differences between them to submit as clean a copy as I could, it was an impossible task. There is no way to have hit on every possible nit with every possible publishing house to make a comprehensive list, and by the time you do, a new version of one of the resource books will release or the house will add something to house style, and your database is rendered useless again. That led me to rule #1 for dealing with publishers.
#1- Don’t sweat the small stuff. Try to match what they say they want, but when push comes to shove, just change the nits the resource books and house styles call for without a fuss. Edits go much faster that way, and as long as it’s not WRONG…I mean really wrong and not just style, leave it alone.
Now, sometimes it will be wrong. If an editor is trying to add a comma where one isn’t needed (say before the ‘and’ when there isn’t a list of more than two or two sentences being joined), call the editor on it…nicely. If the editor is trying to make a change that will change the meaning of the sentence, ditto. Violate world rules? Oh yes, say something there.
Another time to put your foot down is when the field you’re writing in demands certain standard spellings or punctuation. For instance, no matter what the “preferred spelling” (and I’ll get back to preferred spellings in a bit) or capitalization is in M-W, if you’re writing a military or scientific character, you should endeavor to match the standard for those fields, as closely as possible. The resource books are not written with specific fields and usages in mind. They are written for the “average.” Following them blindly can cause errors in your work you don’t really want to have there. Flexibility is required in these situations.
Most editors are reasonable about this sort of thing. Some aren’t, but thankfully they are few and far between.
#2- You have to pick the battles you feel matter. Don’t go head-to-head over every little nit. Only refuse changes and get into a discussion when something is blatantly wrong or will be out of character/field.
#3- Characterization does not mean you get to throw the rule book out the window. Bad grammar is acceptable in dialog and vernacular, as long as it’s still readable. Note that some editors will still try to change dialog to be grammatically correct, which floors me, but… Back to vernacular… Using a little is better than overpowering the book with it. Again, common sense and flexibility. Unless the whole book is in the vernacular of a character (think Huckleberry Finn), the narrative should never be allowed to be riddled with bad grammar and spelling. That is not a “style.” It’s poor writing.
My biggest complaint about the way resource books are used comes down to “preferred spellings.” On the surface, I have no problem with the idea that certain spellings are antiquated or passé. Where the problem comes to a head is the following. Sometimes, especially in fiction writing, you want the spellings to be antiquated. What if you’re writing historical? What if you’re writing fantasy or even science fiction and want to go for something apart from the norm? What if your character is 500 years old? Resource books do not take this into account, and unfortunately some editors don’t either.
Moreover, just because the new, dumbed-down spelling of the word is proclaimed “preferred” by M-W doesn’t make the older version wrong. It’s still there in the dictionary. I’d have to say my biggest complaint about editors and publishing houses is choosing to ONLY accept the preferred spelling of the words, according to M-W.
Will I leave a contract over it? No, of course not. That doesn’t mean I think it’s right, though.
What amuses me about the situation is that these same editors and publishers will complain alongside me about the dumbing-down of language, but choosing to defer to the “preferred spelling” is assisting in that dumbing-down. I know. I’m taking the publishing industry to task here. In the end, there’s the right way, the wrong way, and the way the industry chooses to use the resource books.
Brenna Lyons wears many hats, sometimes all on the same day: former president of EPIC, author of more than 85 published works, Administrator for Silver Publishing, columnist, special needs teacher, wife, mother…and member in good standing of more than 60 writing advocacy groups. In her first eight years published in novel-length, she’s won 2 EPIC e-Book Awards (out of 15 finalists) and finaled for 3 PEARLS (including one Honorable Mention, second to NY Times Bestseller Angela Knight), 2 CAPAS, and a Dream Realm Award. She’s also taken Spinetingler’s Book of the Year for 2007. Brenna writes milieu-heavy dark fiction, mainly science fiction, fantasy and horror, straight genre, romance and erotic crosses, poetry, articles and essays. She teaches everything from marketing to choosing an indie publisher, and she’s been called “one of the most deviant erotic minds in publishing today” by Fallen Angels. Find out more about Brenna at Youtube and her site!
Thanks for joing us here, Brenna, it’s been a pleasure hosting you. :)
Check out Brenna’s latest offering!
Mating Season book 2 in the Xxan War series!