I do a lot of proofreading. The two most popular manuals of this component of publishing, in fiction and most other trade publishing, are Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, or CMS) and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged (or Collegiate) Dictionary (Sometimes M-W).
I do not pretend to know everything, so I subscribe to both of these services online, and own hard copies, too, and I learn more nuances of our language every time I do a book.
Proofreading is the last step before publication. In the golden days of publishing, books were proofread by a number of people, usually staff proofreaders, then reviewed by the author and editors. Now, they’re proofread by a freelance professional (me), immediately after a copy edit by another professional (can also be me, but is never me on the same book), and then carefully checked over by a Production Editor.
Still, the manuscript should be practically spotless, and I should only have to mark bad breaks and the errant misspelling.
I see practically published manuscripts all the time that wouldnt’ve made it in any of the intro-level writing courses I took in college (I took three, fiction, poetry, and composition).
So often, I get these manuscripts with edicts like, “don’t touch the voice!” when what the author (or editor) means is, “Please don’t unstack the stacks of fragments or call into question the special fondness of the ellipsis!”
Part of what’s at issue is a function of the books I proofread. Most of these are trade romance fiction, and for a small press whose authors seem to be more prone to grammar/style Diva behavior than is strictly reasonable.
Some words about voice.
I did a new web search for “writer’s voice,” and I was surprised by the dearth of actual definitions. So it’s no wonder people are confused. A lot of trade paperback authors within the mainstream fiction market (genres like romance, sci fi/fantasy, crime/romantic suspense, etc) are on their second or third career as a novelist, and they did not attend or teach the ridiculous number of hours of writing workshops that I have, or that many professional freelance writers, editors, and consultants have.
A writer’s voice is a thing that’s cultivated carefully over 10,000 hours of practice. It’s not something that can be faked, and it has nothing to do with punctuation, the use of fragments, or long, hyphenated, don’t-pop-until-you-can’t-stop adjectives.
The voice encompasses things like ethos, diction, cadence, syntax, semantics, rhetoric. A voice is the music a reader hears while reading. It is the difference between “I went to the store and bought eggs,” and “I went to market for eggs.” Both of these are grammatical sentences that say the exact same thing, but they are written in two different voices.
And yes, voice can be augmented by the writer’s choices about punctuation–as in whether to offset parenthetical elements with commas, parentheses, or em dashes–but speaking purely, one has relatively nothing to do with the other.
I consulted one of my favorite reference manuals from college, M.H. Abrams’s A Glossary of Literary Terms, too. Abrams argues a larger role for ethos in the writer’s voice: the voice is not just cadence, it is the reader’s sense of the author’s selfhood, her morality, her credibility. So too in that regard, the following are excellent rules to know, rules to internalize, and if you’re interested in publishing (self or traditional), following these rules will go a long way toward proving your chutzpah as a serious writer.
1. Use Italics Sparingly. I’ve written before about the need to trust one’s reader. Using italics for emphasis is a trick that is often liberally employed by amateurs to ensure that their readers hear the exact same voice they heard while writing. This impulse is a good sign. It means the writer is engaged by her characters and in the process. However, italics for emphasis is almost never necessary, and should not be over-applied.
CMS says, “Use italics for emphasis only as an occasional adjunct to efficient sentence structure. Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis, and never a whole passage.”
Appropriate uses of italics: to demarcate internal dialogue, and when using the title of a longer work, like a book, play, or film.
2. A few overused punctuation marks that are to be scarcely applied, but that often riddle a manuscript like a plague of locusts.
Each of these have a specific purpose, and like italics, lose their force when too liberally applied.
The ellipsis indicates trailing off in dialogue or thought or an omission in a quotation. Ellipses should only be consistently used in a manuscript in dialogue, and have no place in prose. They are not voice.
Em dashes work sort of like parentheses, to set off a phrase or incongruous idea from another within a sentence. These, too, should be used sparingly.
Exclamation points are the literary equivalent of using a hammer to end a sentence. Overuse of these can be off-putting (and harmful) for readers who prefer to experience a character via context and sentence structure.
CMS has this to say: An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment
3. There are lots of rules about hyphenates: Very specific ones for different parts of speech, but here’s a more-or-less fail safe crystallization to remember. When used before a noun, an adjective may be hyphenated (ass-faced baby, yellow-and-blue fabric), but words that end in -ly are not hyphenated either before or after nouns (badly drawn boy, person who is loudly dressed).
Chicago Manual has a whole table. If you subscribe, you can download the PDF. I always have it open while I’m editing.
4. Fragments make you look stupid, and they piss off your reader. I am all for the carefully used fragment. Sometimes, fragments can elevate prose. Sentence fragments are sentences that are missing their subject, verb, or object.
Another amateurish impulse is to use fragments to indicate either high intensity or excitement in a character’s inner experience. Usually, the writer doesn’t need to because they’ve painted a clear picture with precedent prose, and then this use of the fragment falls into the realm of the imitative fallacy.
Here’s an example: Frederick pushed the animal under him to run harder. Didn’t stop till Dixie. Ate a sandwich. Took a nap.
Again, an isolated use of this tactic can really sing. But doing this to your reader once or twice per 250 words is just silly. And it makes you look bad, like you only have one trick. And it is not your voice. Hear me? It’s not your voice.
5. Use of any of these things together is nearly always a no-no.
Let’s re-write that example, and you’ll see what I mean:
Frederick pushed the animal under him…to run harder! Didn’t stop till Dixie. Ate a sandwich-for-lunch–…took a siesta!
Your voice is more than smoke and mirrors. It is your essence, it can’t be manufactured; so work hard to develop it, and follow these five rules.