Reference Points, and Other Sharp Objects

Over this past week, Juli and I have been spending most of our days editing. Not my writing, this time. We are doing it as a favor for a friend. It has turned out to be a salutary reminder of the of the importance of reference points, which anchor the process of writing in a common framework. It is, as I often say, all very well bending the rules, but you have to know what the rules are before you can do that with any degree of success.

Many moons ago, when I first started to write in earnest, Juli was my main reference point. With an English degree and a lifetime of teaching experience to draw on, she has a fine ear for language, character development and plot. She still edits everything I write. However, I developed a second string to my writing bow—the art of the critique. Through attending writers’ groups, and later running a group myself, I have had to sharpen up my knowledge of the “rules.”

In one sense, this has never been easier. Want to know when it is best to use a semicolon? Google it. Having doubts about the number and location of those commas you just sprinkled on your story? Google it. The problem is, as with everything on the Internet, what is and what is not a reliable source?

We all have to seek our own solutions on this one. For me, it was to turn to a style manual. I did due diligence. I searched, read reviews, looked at samples of manuals by various authors (Thomas Bernstein, Bryan Garner), checked out the AP manual (strictly for journalists), and studied a copy of Strunk and White (for upmarket journalists). I came to the conclusion that the Chicago Manual of Style was the one for me. Paired with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it provides the answers I need. It also has the major advantage of being widely recognized. It is a hefty tome (there is an online version, if weight is an issue) and costs about $50. The online version is available for an annual subscription of $39.

Of course, for the impoverished writer supping gruel and mumbling on a crust in her or his garret, such sums may be the stuff of dreams. In which case, I recommend the following site, run by the Capital Community College Foundation. It is free (although they do suggest a donation might be in order), comprehensive, and fully searchable:

Next time: The Arcane Art of the Critique

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