Style is not Voice! 5 Style Rules to Internalize.


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 Termstoo.  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.

Pay Dirt

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!

The point

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.

Is Fake Journalism Viable as a Career? Methinks Nope.

I took this picture at a hospital on a freelance project.

My journalism studies stopped abruptly after my first semester of college when I realized that my true love is fiction & writing it.  So after–or perhaps it was during–my second semester, I did a ninety degree turn and switched from Journalism to English with a Creative Writing concentration.

I spent most of the glorious next four years swimming in the ocean of literature, criticism, contemporary fiction, and writing.  I dropped the Oxford Comma habit, then picked it up again when I ditched MLA for Chicago Manual.

Now, ten years later, I find myself as a practicing journalist.  Would those lovey journalism professors I scorned during my energetic and immersed first year of college be proud of me, or would they think I’m a poser?  I feel like a poser.

I write hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words each week for newspapers and magazines, and am in hot pursuit of more of this work using my trusty manual, Writer’s Market, and the online service, too. These are invaluable for the freelance writer.

And while all of the editors I work with seem to esteem me and my work somewhere between pleased and just-glad-to-have-a-reliable-freelancer, I keep finding and being offered more of this work, so I must be doing something right.

The jargon eludes me sometimes (though I cheat), and there are many aspects of AP Style that strike me as particularly un-stylish.

I’m kind of devastated by the realities of the print media business, and I am knees-deep in something that feels, in many ways, to be almost dead.  Rasping halted breaths after the world wide web and free content bludgeons it, print media is living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Nobody is paid well enough (especially not freelancers), and in the barren economic environment–or in the failure of print media to adequately prepare for and adapt to new media–the dearth of analysis and criticism that print media can afford its subjects contributes to the general disregard for critical thinking that is all too prevalent.

Still, I love talking to people and learning new stuff.  I love to do research and procure a working understanding of new topics.  And for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette (that I’m not linking here because every time you open their website, you get popups from Publisher’s Clearing House or Netflix), I get to talk to artists and musicians primarily, and I’ve met some excellent people, and learned about some groovy new tunes.  I’ve also talked to some Broadway celebs and authors I admire or respect.

But, I live in Williamsport, PA.  And while there’s tons of stuff that’s happening here that’s amazing, it’s not New York, Chicago, LA, or even Nashville.  We get d-list celebrities and Glenn Beck. Besides which, freelancers for small-town newspapers don’t really get to talk to the national acts (which is totally understandable and I am NOT complaining), and even when I do get to talk to national acts, it’s not like they’re folks who’re up-and-coming.  American Songwriter probably doesn’t want a piece about Foghat.  And the two pitches I’ve made for singer/songwriters that I thought would work there have been handily ignored.  (Again, not complaining.  Rejection is a reality of a career as a writer)

And in this huge Wildcat Comic Con project, I’m meeting even more cool people and learning even more cool stuff.  Ditto my podcasting for Billtown Blue Lit.  And these are up-and-comers.  So I’m hoping to mine a goodly number of pitches from this work.

But I find myself wondering why I expend so much energy and get paid so poorly (or not at all) when the likelihood that this work (or more of it) will still be available for me in even two years is slim.  Staff writers are more-or-less a thing of a bygone age, with staff writers having made a laborious transition to being called editors and getting paid less to do more work, so I don’t delude myself.  I am an apprentice to an industry that won’t be able to provide for my retirement.

So I mostly view this work as personal enrichment, and building a solid base of published pieces that I can leverage into better-paying gigs, plus writing practice because (say it with me), All Writing Is Writing Practice!

(I am also considering applying to graduate school again.  Don’t tell Penelope.)

Too, I’m getting my name into the world, on the internet, and the more people who know about me, who see my name in conjunction with things they enjoy, the greater my odds of being offered freelance writing work of any stripe.

But Penelope says that when you’re in your 30s, you have to stop doing work that people in their 20s do. I feel like I’m doing what I should’ve done the moment I earned my degree, and the realities of efficiency and the limited number of hours each day means that honoring this low-paying work while pursuing better-paying writing jobs is a tightrope walk between self-torture and -affirmation.

And I get Writer’s Digest, and I read blogs about freelancing, writing, media, and personal/professional development. I learn more about how to freelance as a writer every day.  So maybe I’m doing everything right? Or maybe I should just keep on keeping on and quit worrying so much over the theory.

Anybody care to weigh in?  I’d love to know what you think.  I approve all comments, even if I think they’re wrong, unless they are decidedly trollish.