Monthly Archives: August 2022

Using a Style Guide for Writing and Editing

Any project containing text for public consumption—books, magazines, newspapers, websites, reports, and so on—will look more professional and read better if it adheres to a specific style standard. To achieve professionalism, writers and editors use a stylebook, or style guide: a reference manual of writing and publishing conventions that enables them to follow accepted editorial standards.

Why use a style guide?

Style guides cover in great detail topics such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, numbers, quotations, abbreviations, indexes, and more. They help you determine how to best present your text.

Writing and editing to a style standard promotes clarity and consistency, especially when text is produced by multiple writers and editors for the same publication or company.

Kinds of style guides

Style GuidesA variety of style guides exist for different purposes. Three of the most popular style guides in use today are The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition; The Associated Press Stylebook, 56th edition; and the MLA Handbook, 9th edition. CMOS is used primarily in the publishing industry, AP for journalism, and MLA in academia. (I use CMOS.)

Niche style guides are also used in certain industries, such as Microsoft Manual of Style, 4th edition, for technical writing and communications in the software industry.

How to familiarize yourself with a style guide

Once you choose a style guide for the type of writing or editing you’ll be doing, the first thing you must do is familiarize yourself with it.

Start with the table of contents. Pick a section you’re interested in and leaf through its subsections, reading headings to learn how the section is organized and how granular the topics are. Then study a subsection of interest, perusing the text and any examples.

Do you see how the information will help you with writing or editing a manuscript?

Style guide-induced paranoia

One drawback to reviewing a style guide this way is that you’ll recognize how much you don’t know. What could happen is that you begin to question everything you write or edit. “Is this correct? How do I find out what the stylebook says?” (Hint: start with the index.) You may be compelled to look up anything and everything you’re not certain about.

Granted, it’s best to check issues you’re unsure of. For example, how do you represent the numbers 3, 86, or 700? With numerals or written out, as text? CMOS says in sections 9.2 and 9.4 that numbers one through one hundred should be spelled out, as well as larger whole numbers that can be written in two words. So, three, eighty-six, and seven hundred are correct. (AP has a different standard for numbers.)

However, no one can memorize the contents of any style guide in a few weeks.

One way to learn your style guide

Rev. Worthy SmarmingtonIt takes a lot of time—possibly years—to thoroughly familiarize yourself with a style guide. Even then, you’ll never get beyond needing to look up the guidelines for some issues.

The Rev. Worthy Smarmington, editor in chief at Protestant Chronicle1, recommends this tack: “Treat your treasured stylebook like a devotional and read a subsection every day. Two on your chosen Sabbath. Then pray you remember what you’ve read.”

If you can’t, simply look up the information again.

Consult the index—or make your own

Study the index. It’s the best way to find what you’re looking for. (In my opinion, the index in the print CMOS is easier to use than the CMOS Online search facility.)

You may even want to go through the entire guide and list all the subject and section numbers of topics you think you’ll use most now and in the future. Refer to this list as your personal, working index.


Employing these approaches will, over time, enable you to learn the guidelines for hundreds of everyday textual concerns—and make you a better writer or editor.

I’m available to edit dark fiction. For more information, see Dark Fiction Editing.


1. A fictitious expert at a fictitious publication.

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Beware Autonomous Body Parts!

As a fiction editor, I flag many issues for revision and rewriting. One common problem is what I call “autonomous body parts.” Sounds ominous. What are autonomous body parts? Read on if you’re brave and want to improve your fiction…

Autonomous body parts are any body parts—eyes, eyebrows, limbs, hands, feet, internal organs, and so on—that an author empowers as if they have minds of their own.

For example:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and his arms flailed, trying to keep his balance on the ice.

What’s the issue here? Arms flailing is an acceptable response or result of being shoved across an icy surface.

Autonomous Body Parts

The problem is that arms don’t flail of their own accord. The real question here is, where does the action spring from?

More to the point, who is performing the action? Who has agency? The rule here is:

Body parts do not have agency; characters do.

Beckoning HandUnless you’re writing horror and disembodied body parts actually do have minds of their own, you correct this issue by transferring agency from the body part to the character. In other words, make the character the subject of the sentence—the subject with agency who performs the action verb—with the body part/s as the object:

Marcy shoved Oswald backward, and he flailed his arms, trying to keep his balance.

Recasting the sentence to give Oswald agency also solves the problem of his arms trying to keep his balance. Oswald does something to keep his balance, not his arms.

Another example:

Gary’s frantic hands groped for purchase along the bridge girder.

Beware those spastic body parts! How would you fix this one? To avoid using an adverb (frantically), you’ll need to rewrite a bit:

Gary groped for purchase along the bridge girder, his fingers slipping on the rusted surface.

Flying EyesAnother culprit is disembodied eyes that fly around the room.

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s eyes flew to the television.

Jeepers creepers, did her peepers pop out of her head, zoom across the room, and splat the TV screen? (An “eye-catching” horror idea, but…) Better to state it this way:

When the news anchor mentioned last night’s murder, Winnie’s gaze flew to the television.

Instead of allowing a character’s eyes to rove around like that murder ball in Phantasm, use gaze.

Remember: body parts don’t have agency; characters do. Scan your work for instances of autonomous body parts and transfer agency from the body part to the character. Your readers will appreciate it.

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