An American Editor

February 5, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part One — Establishing Parameters

Carolyn Haley

Managing independence is the biggest challenge of being an independent editor who works with independent authors. There’s no rule book, no boss to tell you what to do (aside from certain “musts” pertaining to conducting business legally and ethically).

I feel the absence of rules and bosses when editing dilemmas arise between technical correctness and creative license, as often occurs in fiction. Although numerous style guides and editorial forums exist to advise editors and writers, these resources don’t all agree on how to handle the complexities of language and context. In addition, publishing is an unregulated industry, so there is no official set of rules that all participants must comply with. Instead, publishers and independent editors are free to establish their own editorial criteria, with no one looking over their shoulders.

These editorial criteria — the “house style” — are built upon whichever dictionary and style guide a publishing house prefers, then are customized over time by staff preferences. For example, a house’s dictionary of choice might spell “e-mail” with the hyphen, but the company prefers it solid and adds “email” to its internal style sheet. Similar distinctions might be directed for capitalization (e.g., Internet vs. internet), one-word/two-word spellings (e.g., cellphone vs. cell phone), and when and how to use italics, ellipses, and en- and em-dashes.

Freelance editors working for publishers usually receive house style information and are required to adhere to it during the edit or be able to defend why an exception should be made. Independent editors working with indie authors, however, can choose which guidelines to follow for which kinds of jobs.

Building a House Style

After years of swaying in the opinion winds, I followed the publishing company lead and developed my own house style. Although I am not a publishing company, I am a business serving the publishing industry. Being an independent editor makes me the CEO, accounting and contracts departments, managing editor, and “chief cook and bottle washer” of my own enterprise, DocuMania. Why not create my own, official, DocuMania house style?

I was already halfway there, according to my style sheet template, which carries from job to job the conventions I’ve established for items that turn up routinely in client manuscripts. Despite the variability that characterizes fiction, some patterns have emerged that I now prepare for instead of waiting for them to surprise me. In these areas, I’ve decided to treat all manuscripts the same unless deviation is appropriate in an individual situation. More on this in Parts Two and Three of this essay.

In general, I set up macros and datasets where possible to help flag and fix terms and expressions that appear in the majority of client manuscripts. These relate mainly to Americanisms and personal preferences. More on this, too, in Parts Two and Three.

In some situations, it’s faster and easier for me to work with hard copy, so I have created a “cheat sheet” for items that refuse to stick in my memory. It lets me check certain items at a glance instead of wasting time looking them up again. For example, with light-headed or lighthearted — which one takes the hyphen? Same with V-8 or V8 — which one is the motor and which is the brand of vegetable juice? Is the word wracked in such expressions as wracked with pain spelled with or without the w? In which cases are awhile and a while one or two words?

My cheat sheet, style sheet template, and datasets, combined with my core reference works (discussed below), create a framework for operational and editorial consistency while leaving room for the flexibility my job demands. Flexibility is important because fiction is a freestyle form of expression. Like all writing, it has to be coherent, consistent, and credible, and the language essentially correct to connect with readers. Within those boundaries, however, the fiction author has total creative freedom.

Editing fiction can be like the proverbial herding of cats, or juggling plates and forks and beach balls at the same time. For indie editors like myself, each client presents a different writing style, voice, technical ability, education, and story type and subject; each has different publishing goals and opportunities, and understanding of the marketplace; and each has a different budget and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to editing client work, so it’s up to me to decide the rules of engagement. By establishing a house style, I can reduce the number of moving parts and focus on a work’s individualism.

Core References

Step one of establishing my house style was choosing my core reference sources. This amounted to deciding which editorial authorities I should I base my work on.

That was easy, because I’ve been following the same path since I took my copyediting certificate course way back when. In that course, I was taught that Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW) were the “industry standard” style and spelling guides in book publishing, with Words into Type as a supporting resource. I duly acquired and studied them, found them sensible and palatable, and willingly embraced them.

I swiftly learned through my early work, which was anything I could coax in the door, that different arms of the publishing industry favor other dictionaries and grammar/style/usage guides. Newspapers and magazine publishers, for instance, tend to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, whereas some textbook and journal publishers lean toward the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style. There are many more across and within each subject area.

For dictionaries, some publishing houses and independent editors like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Others prefer the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Oxford American Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English — or all of the above, or any other. Specialized fields have their own preferences, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for medical editing. A library’s worth of subject-specific reference works exists, and, like most editors, I keep adding to my collection.

Once the Internet arrived, many reference works expanded to offer their material online as well as in print, and new resources came into being. Editors and writers now add electronic bookmarks to their pool of resources, and make good use of Google and online versions of major style guides — as well as quickly and easily accessible Q&A services for those guides.

It amounts to an embarrassment of riches that I find, simultaneously, a boon and a burden. The boon should be obvious: Whatever information one needs for making editorial decisions is almost always available at one’s fingertips. The burden comes from having too much information available, and no lodestar to follow when navigating a path through it. In the absence of some authority dictating a dictionary/style guide pairing specifically for fiction, I decided to stick with the ones I’m most familiar with, that is, MW and CMoS. No publisher I’ve edited novels for has directed me to use anything else, nor has any independent author asked me to comply with a particular dictionary or style guide. Consequently, the MW/CMoS pairing provides a solid foundation for me to build upon.

To round them out with grammar and usage guides, I floundered until a colleague informed me about Garner’s Modern American Usage. (Since then, a new edition has come out, with the name slightly changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage). That has proven to be a boon in itself. If I can’t find guidance for a conundrum in CMoS, or need expansion on that guidance to reach a decision, I almost always find it in Garner’s. This resources dovetails with CMoS through its author, Bryan Garner, who not only is a contributor to CMoS but also wrote The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

In a manner similar to how Garner’s and CMoS reflect each other, Merriam-Webster offers multiple dictionaries and associated resources. Their online unabridged dictionary includes condensed access to medical terminology, French and Spanish, and citations, plus a thesaurus and a style guide. On my bookshelf I keep MW’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary for people and place names. Between the MW and CMoS families of reference works for spelling, grammar, and usage, I find most of what I need to look up during fiction editing.

These resources don’t cover everything, of course, which is why I and other editors need the broadest library we can compile, along with Internet access. But using MW and CMoS as core resources gives me a frame of reference to support my editorial actions and authority, and minimizes the time I must put into addressing variables.

The Deviation Factor

My house style comes into play most often on points where, as Garner’s often says, “authorities are divided.”

For instance, when it comes to capitalizing the first word of a sentence following a colon, CMoS advises, “When a colon is used within a sentence . . . the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name.” This general guideline is followed by advice on how to treat other, specific instances. The Associated Press Style Stylebook, conversely, says, “Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.”

Garner’s, meanwhile, gives many examples of when to cap or not after a colon, and the rationale behind them, plus an overview statement: “Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized.”

Garner goes on to exemplify how experts might come to choose their own preferences, concluding, “The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view — urging for a lowercase word following the colon — is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the two clauses together. That’s the style used throughout this book. It’s also the house style for The New Yorker . . .”

After studying all that, and comparing it to the seemingly endless ways that novelists can construct sentences, I decided that the DocuMania house style would take the simplest route: “Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon” (except when an individual situation calls for a different practice). That gives me approximately nine occasions out of ten when I don’t have to stop and review exceptions, ponder their relevance, compare different authorities’ opinions, and decide who’s right. In fiction, whether a colon is followed by a cap rarely disrupts a reader’s attention or changes a sentence’s meaning. The colon’s purpose in narrative is to signal that the following thought closely aligns with the first (or, as Garner puts it, “promises the completion of something just begun”).

What matters more than the cap is that the colon is used appropriately. Garner includes a helpful summary of when the colon is used inappropriately. That occurs more often in my clients’ material than situations where the fine shades of capitalizing after a colon influence reader comprehension.

With these core resources established, I have a framework in place to address the many variables that occur in fiction. Parts Two and Three explore some of those details.

The bottom line is that I now have a house style for my business that makes my editing fiction life easier.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: