“The Care and Feeding of a Style Sheet”
by F. Paul Wilson
I think it started back in the mid 80s with Barry Malzberg’s The Engines of the Night. As I read through the essays, I noticed a paucity of commas—conspicuous by their absence from introductory clauses and elsewhere in the text. Since Barry was (and is) more conscious than most about style, I figured they were MIA by design. So I paid attention and realized I didn’t miss them. In fact, the prose flowed more swiftly and surely than it might have with them in place.
So I began dropping certain commas in my fiction, experimenting with short stories first, then with a novel. I forget which book it was—Black Wind, perhaps—but I remember receiving the copyedited ms and discovering that the editor had added back all the commas I’d left out. Ack. I think it might have been Black Wind because I remember referring to the editor as a commakaze (sorry, but it’s true). So I had to go through the entire ms and remove those commas.
I was also starting to break out my dialog more—keeping it paragraphed away from narrative. I’ve discovered there’s something about the eye-brain connection that likes white space around text; it allows the mind to grasp meaning more quickly and clearly. Faster comprehension lends a sense of narrative momentum, which leads to the I-couldn’t-put-it-down reading experience. Copyeditors (to their credit, only occasionally) would attach my dialog to a preceding or succeeding narrative paragraph. I would have to go back and undo it.
After a couple of novel-length bouts of wasting precious writing time correcting the “corrections,” I asked why they couldn’t accept the quirks in my deathless prose. I learned that each publisher has its own style sheet that copyeditors must follow; if I wanted exceptions, I simply had to let them know.
Was that all it took? Cool.
So I started adding a note to the beginning of each ms asking the editor not to add commas or fiddle with my dialog paragraphing. As time went on and my idiosyncrasies multiplied, I created a formal style sheet that’s now included with every ms.
This is what it looks like nowadays. Feel free to copy and adapt to your own preferences.
TO THE COPY EDITOR
STYLE SHEET for (title)
No insult intended if the following appear to be basic common sense rules to you, but all are raised because of past difficulties.
I use the serial comma; other than that, I find most commas intrusive and use as few as possible. Please discard all your hard and fast rules about commas (i.e. with introductory clauses greater than 9 words, with if and when clauses, and so on). Add a comma ONLY when you feel it’s absolutely necessary for clarity. If it doesn’t enhance the sentence, please leave it out.
I follow Theodore Bernstein’s “doom of whom” rule and use whom only when it directly follows the preposition; otherwise it’s who all the way.
The question mark
NO question mark with rhetorical or uninflected questions. (“You’re really mad, aren’t you.” That’s a statement.)
I have my own way of paragraphing dialog—I like to break it out. It’s neither terribly unique nor radically unorthodox, but some editors can’t resist tacking a line of dialog onto the preceding narrative paragraph. Please don’t do that here.
Certain characters in this novel haven’t pronounced the “g” in the suffix “-ing” for so long that drawing attention to its absence seems superfluous. So I have dispensed with those particular apostrophes.
The internal monologues of the above characters are in the same bad English they speak. (If they speak trailer-parkese, they won’t think in MFAese; they’ll stick to their patois.)
I don’t want to leave the impression that a writer’s relationship with the copyeditor is adversarial—you tugging toward “art” (whatever that is) and the hidebound copyeditor dragging you down to mundanity. Not at all. You both want the same thing: a perfect book. But the copyeditor is paid by the publisher to follow its guidelines . . . unless guided otherwise.
One thing I’ve learned: Good copyeditors are gold. They can make you look your best. You see your ms so often you become blind to its errors. A good copyeditor will spot them and flag them. No one’s perfect, and errors inevitably slip through, but the two of you are in league to hunt down and kill as many as possible. Typos and grammatical gaffs annoy readers and pull them out of the story. You do not want your reader out of your story.
The nice thing about staying with the same publisher is that you have the opportunity to work with the same copyeditor on subsequent mss. Becky M (I won’t give her last name because she may not want it floating around the Internet) and I have been working together for quite a few years now. She knows my quirks and will even remind me when I deviate from them. But Becky goes beyond that. Not only is she a usage and grammar whiz, she’s wise in the ways of the world, especially NYC where Jack roams. She’s caught me and called me out on errors regarding subways and hospitals and all manner of city sundries. She never ceases to amaze me with her fact-checking abilities. As long as she’s in the business, I want her on my books.
One last thing: If and when you do work up a style sheet, be polite. You’re entering a partnership with the copyeditor, and a sure way to sour that relationship is to come off as an arrogant son of a bitch. As perfect as you might think you are, you have made mistakes and you want them found and corrected before the book hits the shelves.