by Bobbie Christmas
Q: I noticed your newsletter used to hyphenate email (as e-mail) and capitalize internet, but the latest edition doesn’t do those things. What gives?
A: What gives is that The Chicago Manual of Style recently released its newest edition, with changes such as those you mention. Because Chicago style is the editorial style preferred by book publishers and I edit books more than anything else, my newsletter follows Chicago style as a way of imparting its style guidelines to readers. In addition to removing the hyphen from email and no longer capitalizing internet, the seventeenth edition of the book also made other changes, and I’m still learning them all. Although writers who use manuscript editors don’t necessarily need to know all the nuances of Chicago style, book editors must keep up with every update, to ensure the manuscripts they edit comply with the latest edition of CMOS.
Q: I have been perusing your Purge Your Prose of Problems manual, and I see in the “To/too” section that you did not place a comma before “too” in the example: “He’s coming along too.” Are writers no longer required to place a comma before “too” when it implies inclusion? It is hard to keep up with all these changes, and I am extremely grateful to have your manual!
A: The Chicago Manual of Style, which sets the editorial style preferred by book publishers, recommends reducing the level of punctuation, but to use it to avoid confusion. Leaving out the comma in the example you sent does not change or confuse the meaning in any way.
Q: I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the Harriette Austin Writers Conference years ago and bought your book Write In Style. It answered questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time, but confused me in one area. I thought writing tight (meaning the least number of words needed) was the best way to write. In some of your examples that doesn’t seem to be the case. For example, when you were making the point about the push-pull of using some words in past-tense writing, you had the following example: They bought bagels two days ago. Your book says this rewrite is better: They had (a verb we’ve been told to eliminate where possible) bought bagels two days before. I know the issue is using “ago,” when “before” is less conspicuous in past tense, but the rewrite makes the sentence longer. Can you enlighten me?
A: As do many other books that teach creative writing, my book, Write In Style, harps on the importance of writing concise sentences. I, however, am human and fall into the same weak writing habits I warn against. I wish my editor (yes, even good editors use editors) had caught the inconsistency in the book, though. Regardless, it’s important to have a blend of sentence lengths. Not every sentence should be short. For creative purposes, choppy writing is as bad as having too many lengthy sentences.
I made clear in the book, though, that we cannot always avoid using “had.” It indicates past perfect; however, one mention is enough to set the tense. That said, the better example of avoiding “ago” might have been the following: “They bought bagels two days earlier.”
Creative writing does not always result in shorter sentences, but it avoids unnecessary words. It cannot always avoid the verbs “to have” and “to be,” but those verbs often signal an opportunity to “write in style,” which sometimes calls for deletion and often calls for replacing a weak verb with a more compelling one.
By the way, while I was writing my book, one of my former editors commented, “Isn’t it odd that you are writing a book on creative writing, but it has to be technical, not creative, by its nature?” Her comment spurred me to make sure I wrote in a breezy style—not merely technical—and I added many funny examples, to keep readers smiling while they learned.
I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation and my book. I appreciate your comments and keen eye.
Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.