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Monday, July 13, 2009

Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for Fiction

Recently, a friend had witnessed a heated discussion between writers about the MLA Style book and the Chicago Manual of Style. She suggested I write an article on it. If you're not a fiction writer, this won't apply to you, but if you do write fiction, here's important information for you about style standards at major publishing houses. This article, which I wrote, originally appeared on Suite101.

Grammar, Punctuation, and Style for Market Fiction

Some Tips on Style Used By Publishing Houses

Writers should be aware that the style books used at colleges may be different from the style book used by a publishing house for novels.

Many colleges use the MLA (Modern Language Association) Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, also known as the MLA Style book. However, the style book used by most major publishing houses is the The Chicago Manual of Style. (At the time of this writing, this link is for the 16th edition. You should go with the most recent edition.)

Fiction authors should be aware that there are differences between them.

The Chicago Manual of Style Is the Industry Standard

While the MLA Style book is a good resource, most major publishing houses adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) instead. There are some differences in terms of punctuation, grammar, and word usage.

Fiction authors submitting to literary agents or editors should make sure their manuscript adheres to the CMS. Otherwise, differences in punctuation and grammar will make the manuscript look unprofessional, even though it adheres to the MLA.

Writers should strive to submit their best and most professional work, because a manuscript’s unprofessional appearance can adversely affect the agent or editor’s impression of the writer and the quality of the work. “Incorrect” grammar can negatively color the agent or editor’s impression of the story.

Each Publishing House Has Its Own Style Sheets

While major publishing houses adhere to the CMS, they will often have their own “in-house” style sheets that indicate where their grammar, punctuation, and/or word usage will differ from the CMS.

Most the time, these style sheets are not available to unpublished authors.

The writer’s best bet is to simply adhere to the CMS. Editors realize that an outside writer would not know the in-house style sheets, and therefore, they will not reject a manuscript for not adhering to it. However, they will expect the manuscript to adhere to the CMS.

One Exception Is the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style

Many major publishing houses who publish exclusively in the Christian market will adhere to the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style in addition to the CMS. Where the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style differs from the CMS, the houses will usually go with the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style.

Writers submitting to Christian market publishing houses may want to make sure their work adheres to the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style as well as the CMS. Most of the differences between the Christian Writer’s Manual and the CMS lie in how religious terms are used and punctuated.

Know Your Grammar

Writers should have a strong grasp of grammar and punctuation, regardless of whether they adhere to the MLA or the CMS. If your grammar and punctuation is a bit weak, it will be worth it to spend some time brushing up.

A cheap and easy way is to get a middle school grammar book from a family member and study it. There are also good resources online like www.dailygrammar.com and www.grammarcheck.com.

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