Editing Tips: Style Guides

When consistency is not a foolish hobgoblin

Mr. Mxyzptlk

One of Superman’s archvillains was an interdimensional imp named Mr. Mxyzptlk. I’m sure after a while, the writers at DC Comics memorized the spelling, but when he was first introduced, I’m sure they had it written down and available to consult frequently.

In your own writing, you probably have less difficult things to remember. Perhaps you have a character named Runs-with-fire. Or is it Runs-with-Fire, or Runs-With-Fire, or RunsWithFire? Do you write healthcare or health care? Do you use an asterisk or a dingbat to divide sections of a chapter?

Ideally, all of these issues are noted in a style guide your copy editor creates when he or she starts to read your manuscript. But there is no rule that you have to wait for a professional copy editor to make your prose more consistent.

I’ve been a professional editor since 1984, so before I start to write something, I create a style guide. If there are characters, I write a little bio for each of them with their stats (age, racial background, hair color, where they’ve lived, arrest record, etc.) and some details about how they speak, act, and react. If it takes place in another time or a locale I’ve never lived in, I take the time to research it or imagine plausible details about it.

As I go along with the writing, I keep track of decisions I’ve made. My style guide for things I write is perhaps a bit shorter than yours, because I’ve memorized a lot of the Chicago Manual of Style, and between that and Webster’s dictionary, my list of unique or broken rules is not too extensive most of the time. (Though for one novel, I had to create a language, so the dictionary was over a dozen pages long.)

But some of the rest of you may want to note if you’re using British (grey, colour, analyse) or American spellings (gray, color, analyze). You may want to decide if you’re going to ever put a comma before the word and. (Please do!) Established style guides have long sections just about how to treat abbreviations, the style of different levels of headlines and subheads, when to break something out into a block quote, on which side of a quotation mark you put other punctuation, when to use a dialog tag, and what to capitalize. If you work in trade book publishing, the Chicago Manual is the standard, but if you work in journalism, or if you write for doctors or psychologists, you may need to refer to other standards:

Links to various style guides:

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law

The AMA Manual of Style

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

MLA Handbook

A consistent style in your writing makes you seem more professional, and it is less confusing to your readers.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on editing tips. Check back next week for “Editing Tips: Version Control.”


Using Honesty


Sharing shameful or difficult facts has an effect opposite our expectation

How do you react when you know someone is lying? Most of us dislike the person because we know that relationships are built on trust, and you can’t count on a liar.

We are often nudged into lies and falsehoods and bending the truth because leaving others with a negative impression seems like social suicide. But there is a difference between broadcasting your secret to a crowded room and sharing it with just one other person:

When you share something painful with just one or two people, instead of judging you as weak or craven, they are more likely to have compassion and trust you more.

In addition to demonstrating your trust, you are anointing your listener as being trustworthy and special for being one of the few who know something damaging or painful about you. If the revelation is not too personal, you can even share it with a larger group and get a positive response. Even if it is something that makes you look weak or weird.

I am often asked in mixers and new groups I join to reveal some aspect of myself. Other people pick safe things like their love of bungee jumping or that they play guitar. I usually go with:

My parents were UFO investigators when I was a kid.

I picked something so unusual but plausible, it usually gets people coming up to me to ask more questions, and they remember that fact about me often years later. It has a bit of the weirdo vibe to it, but since it was my parents’ thing, and I and my sisters just got taken from our beds, bundled into the backseat of the station wagon, and driven to meet the witnesses, it doesn’t make me look too bad. It could even evoke pity for having such weird parents.

And that is the more frequent response when we reveal something painful. People take pity on us, even if we have some culpability for the result:

I grew up in a family of fast eaters. It sometimes brought me to tears as a child that they left me sitting alone at the table, often for a half-hour while I finished eating.

That still is a little more in the “poor Mark” category, but exposing my victimhood is not the most flattering. When I get to something really painful and difficult, though, listeners can still find a route to sympathy as with:

When my lover was so incapacitated by AIDS he was bedridden and frequently drifting into comas, the doctor asked me if he should increase the morphine dose. I said additional pain relief sounded good, but he clarified that the additional morphine would start to make his lungs so congested he would suffocate. I agreed to it.

Now we get into something I did that resulted, from one point of view, in someone’s death. But you see that many bad decisions we make are based on no-win scenarios. So most listeners still find compassion for a difficult decision I had to make, because the alternative was not any better.

I have much more shameful things I could share, but I require a lot more trust with you than I can have in our current relationship to feel comfortable with that. I had good reasons there too for what I chose to do, but the identity of the greater victim is more up to interpretation.

So how do we use honesty to make fictional characters more likable? Make them honest, even self-deprecating. Or even better, let your reader overhear your character sharing a rare, difficult story with another trusted character. It is another tool for manipulating your readers’ emotions.

This is the fifth and final installment in my series of blog posts on “cultivating emotion” in your readers. If you scroll back through the last four posts, you should find the others.

Using Signalling

How do you know someone likes you?

Of all the ways that establishing a relationship in the real world mirror paths to liking a fictional character, to me, signalling seemed like the biggest stretch in this series of blogs on emotional cultivation. Signalling works in most relationships as a way to let the other person know you like them. People relax and feel comfortable around you when they get a sense you like them. But how does a fictional character let the reader know he or she is liked? (I promise, I will tell you.)

The types of signals we give depend on our culture, experiences, and beliefs. In France, kissing someone on the cheek is more casual than in the U.S. In North America, holding hands with someone usually signals a romantic relationship, often a well-established one, but in much of South America, platonic friends will often hold hands in public.

There are subtle signals: Someone who likes you will likely maintain eye contact, smile when interacting with you, ask you for information or advice. They may stand a bit closer to you, uncross their legs and/or lean forward when sitting.


The very first signal may just be a glance in your direction. Especially if there are other people between you or in the immediate area, a single glance is pretty ambiguous. Even two or three glances could signal them thinking and dismissing that they recognized you. How many glances do most people exchange before they have signaled mutual attraction or interest?

Thirteen is the average, according to research. Evidently, still at the eleventh and twelfth glances, we are concerned they are a stalker or crazy person, or that they are indulging some morbid obsession with your hair or clothing in disarray.

The more obvious signals include someone making physical contact (even a handshake or pat on the shoulder), making an effort to remember your name, proposing a next meeting, and responding with enthusiasm and/or delight. It is one of the least intuitive things about personal dynamics that people like us better when we are clear that we like them.

So how can a fictional character signal he or she likes the reader? Your mind immediately goes to an extremely close first–person narrator who talks directly to the reader, doesn’t it? A theatre term — “breaking the fourth wall” — is often employed here. It is a risky choice, because it makes it harder to engage the reader in your fictional world. You can sometimes get away with it, if you make the “you” your character addresses another character in their story. Then every time your narrator says he or she likes “you,” the reader subconsciously projects him- or herself as the recipient of that declaration.

But if you are following the more common convention of an omniscient, distant, third-person narrator, how can your characters signal they like the reader? As discussed in my last blog, “Cultivating Recognition,” your character can show the reader shared interests, activities, and histories. In sharing something difficult or shameful, your character can signal they like the reader, because they’re willing to be vulnerable in front of them. Something as stagy as a character declaring that they love it when they have an audience can make the reader feel included in their affection.

Use your creativity to come up with other ways your characters can directly or indirectly signal they like your readers, and you will have another tool for emotionally manipulating your audience. (With their permission, of course.)

This is part four of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Using Honesty.”


Cultivating Recognition

Commonalities Bring Our Guard Down

One of the most ground-breaking videos I ever watched–in my entire life–was a segment on “60 Minutes” where Lesley Stahl interviewed researchers studying how humans develop morality. The research shown in “The Baby Lab” suggests we start out, unsurprisingly, liking characters/people who are kind over those who are selfish or mean. But babies also showed a strong hatred of someone unlike themselves. They disliked “different” characters–even if they only acted kindly. The research went as far as suggesting that babies want to see characters unlike themselves punished. One of the researchers summarized:

“A bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people with the same tastes as me, is a very strong human bias.”

It’s worth watching the whole video to discover where the bigotry of infants fades with enculturation at around age nine or ten. We become generous, and we express altruism more often. But even as adults, when we are stressed out, we can revert to our baser instincts, and that’s where prejudices like racism, sexism, and homophobia flourish once more.

So both when meeting real people and when reading about characters in stories, we are keeping a mental tally. We shunt facts we learn about someone into virtual folders: positive, neutral, and negative. If we hear too many neutral facts before a positive one, we lose interest. If we hear too many negative facts before a positive one, we can be repulsed.

But an almost magical spell takes over as soon as we hear that we are like someone else, even in a trivial way: We project. We project that every other unconfirmed facet of the other person is also like us, or at least we hope that’s true. We get more engaged and excited with each new commonality, more easily letting the neutral and negative realizations pass with forgiveness.

We start our evaluation at a distance. Are things as superficial as their skin tone, hair style, clothing colors, gestures, and facial expressions like us? We notice posture, the amount of space between them and others, even how they smell, before we even hear them speak a word.

In writing fiction we have a bit more flexibility about what we reveal first about a character. We may not know the main character’s age, race, or name early on, and the choice to withhold that may be strategic. When we think about what aspects of a character we want to reveal first, we may choose something trivial. Ideally, something quirky but common among our readers, so we can cultivate the sense of recognition. An easy one is to reveal that your character loves reading fiction like yours, because your readers are almost certainly going to identify with that.

Once you have hit on one or two positive matches with your readers, they are much more likely to accept differences they see in your characters. To cover your bases, try introducing a contrasting character early on. Then if one character is not piquing their interest soon enough, the other one has a chance at achieving it.

And keep in mind that the more people learn about you, the more likely you will have cast your spell: They will have found something in you they recognize.

This is part three of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back in three weeks for my post on “Using Signalling.”

Cultivating Empathy

Witnessing Kindness Elicits Compassion

In Part One of this series, I discussed “Cultivating Gratitude” both in general and specifically in fleshing out characters in a story. There are a number of ways to get people engaged with a person or character, and another is by cultivating empathy.

As writers, we are often reinforced into thinking that evoking empathy for a character is the only way to increase reader engagement. In the real world, however, we use gratitude, alignment, wit, declaration, signalling, recognition, honesty, and a lot of other strategies to get someone to like us (I got inspiration from Vanessa Van Edwards.)

We like people who do good deeds, right? If we see someone helping someone else, especially if it’s a stranger and not part of their job, we feel safer around them, because we assume they are kind. We can use Maimonides’ hierarchy of mitzvahs in the Jewish Torah (Eight Levels of Charity) as a reasonable guide. They suggest with increasing potential for empathy:

  1. Being forced to do something good.
  2. Giving willingly and cheerfully, but not enough.
  3. Fulfilling a stated request for generosity.
  4. Someone knowing of your anonymous contribution to them.
  5. Someone not knowing your identity when you give them something they need.
  6. Neither the donor nor the recipient knows each other.
  7. Changing someone’s life to lift them out of dependence on others.

In addition to the willingness and anonymity dimensions above, there are also levels based on the target of someone’s generosity. It could be a plant. It could be an animal. It could be something inanimate like a building. It could be a rich or a poor person. Read through the examples of kindness below and notice which ones make you like the characters more:

  • George and Karen notice their neighbors have a gap in their hedge row and decide to go to the local garden store and buy a new plant to fill it in as a surprise for when the neighbors return from vacation.
  • Diane checks in on her puppy while away and notices on a hidden nanny-cam that her friend Tony spends hours playing and cuddling with her pet outside of the agreed-upon walking and feeding.
  • Kenji fulfills his college’s community service requirement by going to a local nursing home to play board games with the residents.
  • Angela made a commitment when she got her first job as a social worker, that she would set aside money to offer scholarships to her clients’ children, so they could eventually lift their family out of poverty.

Although the introductions are brief, whom did you start liking more? George/Karen, Tony, Kenji, or Angela?

The anonymity, the social class, and the evolutionary development of the recipients seem to be the most important factors for evoking empathy for someone. If you or your characters need to be liked more, try an anonymous bit of generosity for a person truly in need, especially if it has life-changing repercussions.

This is part two of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Cultivating Recognition.”

Cultivating Gratitude

Focus on the Less Fortunate Elicits Thankfulness

There are a lot of reasons why we might want to evoke gratitude in someone, especially a reader. They may be too down or depressed, too self-centered, or too judgmental. In a story, we may achieve more engagement in a character who is worse off than the reader.

If you think about situations where you’ve learned that someone else lacked something you took for granted, you may have reacted initially with embarrassment or shame, but hopefully, you eventually felt greater compassion for the other person. Let’s look at some examples:

Color blindness

temp glasses

Most of us take seeing color for granted. But there are people who go through the world only seeing shades of gray everywhere, some who just can’t tell the difference between red and green. It affects men much more often than women, up to ten percent of the population. It’s harder to choose and prepare foods, because we rely on color to determine ripeness and thorough braising. Some foods look more repulsive when their vibrant colors are removed. In some countries, color blind people aren’t allowed to drive nor be hired into certain jobs. It’s harder to play board games and card games. They may not immediately recognize that something is out of power, because the warning light didn’t register with them.


temp jealous woman

It’s not simple for anyone to raise their own children, but for those who are infertile, the impossibility can lead to low feelings of self-worth or general bitterness. Every baby and young child they see is a reminder of some purportedly normal part of life in which they will never participate. In some cases, the closing off of that option makes infertile adults more likely to criticize couples who choose not to conceive or women who get abortions.

Physical disability

temp wheelchair

We usually take our mobility for granted. We curse the slow escalators and when the elevators don’t work and we need to take the stairs. But what if you had to live in a home with elevators and ramps, or you couldn’t leave it unaided? What if you had to schedule all your trips days in advance and allow a couple of hours to get to and from a place only a mile or two away? What if most of the places you wanted to go to were entirely inaccessible to you? What if you had to search that much longer to find a public bathroom in which your wheelchair fit?

Marriage rights

temp gay couple

Around 90 percent of the population trusts that, if they find the right partner, the two of them can get a marriage license and have a wedding in a church to celebrate their love. In around 85 percent of the world, same sex couples cannot marry. In the U.K., gay couples have only been allowed to marry in the past five years. In the U.S., it’s only been legal for four years. But some churches still functionally deny same-sex couples the right by refusing their sanctuary or their officiant. Up until 1967 in the U.S., you couldn’t marry someone of another race. In medieval times, you could only marry within your class, and even then, the government had the power to approve or reject the union.

When you don’t have the right to marry, it encourages people to discriminate against you in other ways as well. You can start to subtly buy into the myth that you can never have a committed relationship.

More serious circumstances

temp teen-shot-arrested

While all of these are hardships, it is important to note that there are some people whose circumstances are even more dire. And that creates a different response. When someone is denied a basic human right, we are less likely to react with gratitude for our comparative blessing, and either repress the cognitive dissonance or get angry at the injustice. Some people fear for their life, just because of political views they hold. Some people fear the police, because they worry they can be shot without any provocation. Some people get sold into slavery, even as children.

Eliciting gratitude requires that a character have disadvantages. If the problems the character faces are so fundamental that they are frequently in mortal danger, many readers will not be able to relate. You may sometimes get a compassionate response, but the constant reality that someone’s life is disposable more frequently elicits numbness.

This is part one of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Cultivating Empathy.”

Subversive Fiction

A President’s Day Salute to Authors’ Political Activism

It’s President’s Day this week in the U.S. If you’re not familiar with the holiday, it was established in 1971 when the federal government tried to move more of our holidays to Mondays so that they would be more useful as extended weekends. It used to be two separate holidays celebrating the February birthdays of our first president, George Washington, and our sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln.

It comes at a particularly ironic time in American politics, when our current president, whom we often affectionately refer to as 45, is implicated in campaign finance felonies, obstruction-of-justice charges, violations of the emoluments clause of our Constitution, and treason, to name just a few examples. As he and his cronies in Congress slowly shove our constitutional democracy toward fascism, oligarchy, or monarchy (it’s hard to tell where they’re aiming), dozens of new politicians and political activists have stepped forward to try to clean up the mess of our previously inattentive progressives.

While our politicians may have been slacking as retrogressive forces took control of state legislatures and redrew voting districts to give themselves a huge advantage despite their smaller numbers, authors have continued, as they always have, to fight for a more just and healthy world.

In some cases, they have offered dystopian visions, like Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, or Suzanne Collins’s 2008 trilogy that began with The Hunger Games. Especially because both have been brought to filmed versions, in the past few years, more and more people have gotten a glimpse of where the erosion of women’s rights and the dissolution of our federal government might end up. Film writers, too, have contributed with movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Waterworld, which similarly warned us not to be casual about our carbon emissions.

Sometimes, authors normalize populations that many see as fringe or marginal. Becky Albertalli wrote Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in 2015, which became the film Love, Simon three years later, and as awkward as it was at times, it offered a gay coming-out story that wasn’t tragic. It helped to further normalize gays and lesbians. Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q & A was adapted to become the movie Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, and it helped bring light to class struggles and the presumption that the poor are stupid. Angie Thomas’s bestselling The Hate U Give in 2017 spawned a 2018 movie of the same name that brought one of the most powerful spotlights in recent years on police brutality toward blacks.

I find, as an author, it is difficult not to inject political themes into the stories I tell. In studying literature in college, we were constantly seeing how novels reflected their times. A few years ago, I started writing a science fiction novel, sort of a space opera, titled The Walking Trees of Bauble. I was just jazzed about another novel I’d just read (Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye) and I had done some research about invasive species, but while there were themes about environmental stewardship, one about the nature of political allegiance blossomed as well.

Some may shy away from any political inferences in their stories, worrying they will alienate readers who don’t share their beliefs. But I believe the power of story is so strong, it can lead, even if slowly, the most contrary minds toward enlightenment.