Monday, February 22, 2010

Ignoring Style Guides

I've worked as a copy editor for more than three years now, but have been editing other people's writing (and my own) for more than a decade. I'm counting friends, friends of friends, and random schoolmates asking me to read over their passages as well. Friends who are in college will still, off and on, ask for my editing help even now.

All of this is background to the following statement: I hate style guides.

To be more specific, I hate the differences between them. The Chicago Manual of Style is followed, as I understand it, by the publishing industry at large and several major publications; the Associated Press Style Guide is the Bible for practically every major media outlet in existence; the American Medical Association Style Guide is the standard for medical writers ... you get the picture.

It seems that wherever there's writers, there's a style guide telling them what standards to follow. The fun (not really) bit comes when a writer tries to go across style guides in their writing life. An example: My background is journalism. As a result of this, I've had the AP Style Guide drilled into my skull ever since I took my first journalism class in college. That's essentially seven years following the Associated Press's grammar rules for writing. And also seven years writing mostly fact-based writing. This comes through in my fiction, as you'll note Iapetus999 picked up on in the last sample I posted from CALLARION AT NIGHT. I also mentioned that as a weakness in the next day's post.

My master's degree is in technical communication, for which I had to learn not one, but two style guides during the course of. The first was the AMA Style Guide and the second was Microsoft's Technical Writing style guide. By this point, I'd already added The Elements of Style to my internal style guide repertoire. You can imagine that the rules of grammar are getting very clogged up in my head by now. So what, you may ask, do I do in order to keep everything straight? Well that's easy.

I ignore around 80% of all style "rules."

My aim is to write in a way that's pleasing to the ear. If that means ending a sentence on a preposition, so be it. If that means splitting an infinitive, then I'm going to do it. If, by some stretch of the imagination, it means writing an entire page in sentence fragments? You can bet your butt I'm going to go that route. Does this mean I don't use style guides at all? Of course I use them ... all I do is take the things that work for me and leave the rest.

A novel is like a symphony, and you're the composer. Some of the best composers know the rules well enough to break them. The same goes for writers. I know the grammar rules I ignore, but I ignore them because writing a good novel cannot be done (in my opinion) with a slavish devotion to rules. The rhythm of storytelling doesn't allow for rules. It allows for transcendent talespinning that stands the test of time because you the writer are tapping into the universal music behind the words.

And that, my friends, is the most important part. Tap into that rhythm in your story, accept the cadence of the words in your ear, and you will write something beautiful.


fairyhedgehog said...

When I was in the Civil Service, we used Gower's The Complete Plain Words which seems to be out of fashion now. Well, it is as old as I am!

I like to know what the current advice is, even if I'm going to go against it.

Amalia Dillin said...


Stephanie Thornton said...

I've had to learn APA, MLA, and AJPA (American Journal of Physical Anthropologists). What a pain!

I like sentence fragments. A lot.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Matt! And so true! I loved, "Tap into that rhythm in your story, accept the cadence of the words in your ear, and you will write something beautiful."

L. T. Host said...

Really interesting point. I feel a bit better now that I'm remembering I don't really know any of the style guides that well.

Susan R. Mills said...

Great advice! I was just trying to reword a sentence because it ended in a preposition. It didn't sound right no matter how I changed it. So, I left it alone. I'm so relieved that the brilliant Matthew Dellman says it's okay.

Susan R. Mills said...

Oh, and I'm sorry I misspelled your name. I need a break. Aye!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

There you go, reading my mind again!

I'm reading Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Williams right now.

I'm torturing a paragraph from my WIP by walking it through all the chapters, revising as I go. First lesson: nothing kills voice faster than slavish devotion to the rules. Second lesson: Trust your instincts and that inner literary ear. Third lesson: The style guides DO have something to teach, you just have to balance it with what you know to be true.

Still more lessons to go . . .

Love the post! Now, stop reading my mind. That's starting to get strange.


Matthew Delman said...

Susan Mills --

That's the most common misspelling of my name, by the way. It became so common that my mother gained the nickname Double L Delman at her office.

And hey, all I'm saying is commonsense writing stuff. Nothing special.

Susan Quinn --

Awww ... but you'd miss it if I stopped reading your mind!

That book is right though. Style guides have to be useful, otherwise they wouldn't exist. But the "rules" are there to be broken.

Julie said...

Very interesting post! I know with writing and reading YA the one rule that must be broken is the need to eliminate sentence fragments.

And this has nothing to do with teen slang, just the fact that they don't like the long flowery sentences nor do they speak that way. Short, chopy, and direct seems to work best.

Matt - I also have a small request but feel free to decline with no offense taken. I loved all your posts about writing the male POV. My most recent WIP has a major role switch and it really shows in one early chapter.

I would love to have your opinion on whether it works or not. Whether my guy has enough guy in him.

Again - don't feel obligated for any reason. It is a YA book.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

its like why write them styles guides anyways cause noone listens to them anyhows so do whatsever you want and people'l read it n stuff sow don't worry none about puntation or grammer. its four loosers.
and thnx for the menshun!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Iapetus: I think you need to write the Definitive DownHome Style Guide.

dolorah said...

Too right, Matt. Style guides are just that; "guides". Your narratives flow exceptionally well; very easy to read. Sometimes, sentence fragments and dangling modifiers make a strong point.

Andrew that was great!