Why Use a Style Book?
Pretend for a moment that everyone in your college composition class elected to change the rules of grammar today. Proper nouns no longer have to be capitalized. No more pesky rules about commas and colons at all—we'll just do away with those. A week from now, you guys will alter the rules just a wee bit more, and then tweak 'em again the day before finals, and, voila! You leave the class with an A- and not a care in the world.
January rolls around and you start getting Ds in all your new classes because your writing sucks. None of your professors can figure out what you're saying. You manage to graduate and land a job in June where your new boss stares at your first e-mail memo as if wondering what trained monkey flew out of your…uhhh…hat…to type it for you.
Having grammar rules, dictionaries and style books that standardize our spelling, syntax, word usage, etc., keeps utter chaos from taking over. Think about it. The example above is silly, I know, but proves the point. I recently worked for a publishing company that adhered to Associated Press style guidelines…sometimes. Imagine the confusion for me when one of the long-time editors questioned the soft abbreviation of a state name: "What is this abbreviation? We spell out state names." "We don't go with AP?" I asked. "No," was the response. She continued with something akin to, "In text, we spell out the state completely. In some paragraphs, we abbreviate it with capital letters." "Like the postal abbreviation?" I asked, for clarification. "What?"
There were other deviations from AP, which was fine. A company should be allowed to set whatever rules it deems necessary, like the college comp class example above. But creating a style sheet that all employees/writers have access to is key here. For the silly example above, the composition class changing the rules of the English language should have submitted its changes to an English-language-governing body. (Webster, perhaps? American Heritage?) To bring this topic home, let me explain how this applies directly to your writing, Oh Visiting Writer.
If you're working on a novel, especially if it's a novel in a series, as my fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods is, it's imperative that you create a style sheet or style book for yourself and your editor. This "rule book" points out the rules and deviations from standard English rules that your book is going to follow. Whenever you or your editor runs into one of those deviations or standardizations in your manuscript, you or this person can check it against the style sheet to make sure it's correct.
I've harped on this concept before, but I've not had the concrete example from my day-job experience to share to drive the point home. If you deviate from the norm or from the standard, accepted rules of engagement, you're going to confuse someone. If that someone is your editor, he or she will likely "fix" your grammar or spelling or syntax "error" in your manuscript. Argh! Now you have something that may look correct according to regular, real-life English-speaking persons (such as good ol' Webster), but now it's wrong in your novel's world. And if your editor didn't catch the "error" everywhere that it occurs, he or she has also created an inconsistency in your novel. This is just bad all around.
So create a style sheet for yourself as you begin working on your novel or series of novels. Make sure it is accessible to everyone who also works on your project, and watch everyone fall in line with your version of the English language.
(Sandy Lender has been an editor in the magazine publishing industry for nearly 16 years and is a book editor for ArcheBooks Publishing. She is the author of the fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods, available at www.Amazon.com.)
"Some days, I just want the dragon to win."