Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Manual Dexterity

So there you are, clattering away at the keyboard and filling page after page with enthralling dialogue and vivid imagery. Suddenly, your fingers halt as your brain wrestles with a question of grammar. You have a sentence in mind, but you’re not quite sure if the phrasing is acceptable.

What do you do?

Do you forge ahead, risking potential editorial wrath? Do you take the not-quite-easy way out and re-write the entire line, thus avoiding grammatical conflict?


You grab that coat by the lapels and consult the Chicago Manual of Style. Now in its sixteenth edition, the CMOS gives definite and definitive answers to your most pressing prose questions. Is the singular they acceptable, or is the more formal (if slightly stilted) he or she required? Are social titles always abbreviated? What on earth is an em dash, and when should you employ one?

Even a first-time reader will find that the CMOS is user-friendly, with clearly marked sections, a cross-referenced index, and a how-to section for editors. After a few consultations, you’ll have no trouble flipping to the correct page for the answer to almost any question.

While it’s not the sole authority on composition—publishers often have a house style, and other countries have established rules of their own—the CMOS is an excellent reference for novice and novelist alike.

Oh, dear. There is one thing that the Chicago Manual of Style can’t help with, and that is bailing out a flooded basement. Three and a half inches of rain in an equal number of hours? Sigh. Thankfully, my sweaters are stored in the attic. Have a lovely week, everyone. Stay dry, and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Grateful that any bailing to be done does not involve jail, The Style Maven makes up for a chronic lack of sleep by consuming vast amounts of caffeine. You can read about the adventures of her alter ego, The Procraftinator, here.


  1. I admire you. I have a big, thick CMOS on my reference shelf, but I've never been able to find the answer to my questions. Maybe I'm asking the wrong questions. I tend to bug my editor instead (but not until I've finished the ms -- I just move along)

  2. Too bad the CMOS can't help with tie tying (snicker) ... I always had trouble getting that perfect little dimple, too ... which is why I no longer wear 'em.

  3. I highlight and move on. There's a good chance it will be cut anyway until the final draft. Then I go through the editing process section by section, smoothing out the wrinkles and answering all the questions. :)

  4. As Diana said, mark the problem and move on so your momentum isn't lost. That's where second edits come in.

    For the flooding, get the water out ASAP then put fans down there to circulate the air to stop mildew, mold, etc.

  5. Dear Style Maven, I do so appreciate your tips, but please, you aren't telling us to stop mid creative stream to deal with that pesky grammar issue, are you? Please tell me "no," as I would hate to think you are trying to stifle us. However, if you would like to point out whether I have placed the commas in the correct places, feel free. I am not in the stream at the moment. LOL

    Seriously, I agree with Diana and the others who have said that they don't stop the writing to check the grammar. I work the same way, highlighting questionable places to deal with in the second or third draft.

  6. I'm an edit-as-you-go kind of gal, so I'd probably deal with it right then and there if it bothers me enough. I'm a bit OCD, I'm afraid.

  7. Ah, yes, the CMOS is a close companion when I'm writing. I do stop and look up the rule if a grammatical question comes up; I'm probably bordering on OCD in that regard. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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