A Mixed-Up Sense of Style

Naomi Hirahara

I’ve worn different hats in my life of writing, and I still do so today. I’ve been a newspaper reporter and editor, technical writer, p.r. flack, biographer, nonfiction writer, and now mystery author as well as a small press publisher and editor.

I have an Achilles’ heel, and I’m the first to admit it–I’m not the best copyeditor (or is it copy editor?). I don’t know if it’s because I’m a speed reader or that I’m more of a forest person rather than a single tree person. But one thing is for sure, wearing all these different hats sometimes makes my head spin, especially when it comes literally to dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s. Luckily I have some very talented copyeditors at my disposal who tell me what’s what.

When I worked in journalism, our bible was the revered Associated Press Stylebook. Spiral-bound, it informed us about whether we should use abbreviations St., Ave., or Blvd. (only with numbered addresses) or whether the phrase, "under way," should be one word or two (usually two). We were a small newsroom and I probably should have created our own stylebook, but there wasn’t enough time in the day.

In the book world, the publisher depends on the Chicago Manual of Style, a thick tome costs as much as it weighs (perhaps ten bucks a pound?). I don’t even own the manual but I’m fairly familiar with its style recommendations. In addition to using the Chicago Manual, the copyeditor creates her own style sheet which essentially is a handwritten list of how certain words in the book will be spelled and punctuated.

You can always contest an established style. For instance, I don’t like hyphenating Japanese American, Korean American, African American, etc., whether they are being used as nouns or adjectives. (That’s pretty much the standard for academics in the field of ethnic history. No hyphenated Americans here!)

Some book authors get irritated by the Post-Its that a copyeditor places on their manuscript to mark corrected pages, but I welcome them. Better to catch any possible mistakes now instead of later. If you don’t agree with a change, you just write STET, which is Latin for "to stand," and the judge, you the author, have ruled. No change. Case closed. The freelance copyeditor my publisher hired caught some important time-related continuity problems. And I’m eternally grateful to the amazing unnamed in-house proofreader who pointed out my inaccurate definition of the Japanese colloquialism, ronpari eyes, meaning wall-eyed. (I had described it in an earlier draft as one eye facing Rome, the other Paris, but it’s supposed to be London and Paris. I guess my European geography is weak as well!)

Here are the three elements of style that have been my bane in my jump from journalism to book publishing:

1) Numbers

Okay, after a decade in journalism, I had gotten it down. For whole numbers from one to nine, you spell it out. From 10 and above, however, you use numerals. Among the exceptions include ages, which you use figures in all cases, i.e. a 2-year-old. When I enter book writing, the rules completely changed. The Chicago Manual of Style wants most numbers spelled out, including World War Two vs. World War II.

2) Italicization

Forget all the underlining you learned in high school and college to site sources. It means nothing for both newspapers and book publishers. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, book titles should be in quotes; in the Chicago Manual of Style, they are italicized. Confusing!

And in my books, with all the Japanese words, it’s a typesetter’s nightmare. Italics abound. But not in all cases–those words in the latest edition of Webster’s dictionary (sake, sumo, nori, judo, Issei and Nisei, for example), are not italicized. These are now bonafide American English words. With each new edition of Webster’s, the language continues to evolve each year.

3) Punctuation

Oh, I haven’t had the nerve to read Eat, Shoots & Leaves after seeing how the book treats long dashes, also known as em-dashes. I had been hot and heavy in a nonfiction book project and was going back and forth with the designer on just this topic. I argued that there should be no space before and after the long dash; the designer wanted the opposite. Guess what Eat, Shoots & Leaves advocates? I guess it’s a British thing, along with humour, grey, cheque, single quotation marks, and the usage of quotes with punctuation marks. Ai-ya! I’m going to have to have my blogmate Simon Wood explain this all to me since I’m heading toward Rome but should be going to London. Contrary to ES&L’s style, we went with no spaces.

And I won’t get into commas and apostrophes, because now looking at my blog entry, all I can see are mistakes and style inconsistencies.

Let’s just end it here and I’ll say hooray for those who love to copyedit! Because that’s one sense of style that will probably elude me the rest of my life. And hope and pray that Murderati doesn’t adopt a uniform style–that will just add another set of rules that I’ll inevitably end up breaking.

A very peaceful Passover, Easter, and belated Spring Equinox to all.

NOW A LITTLE BIT OF SPAM: The following is an entry in my inaugural Mas Arai Spam Contest. From Liz Peck of Albuquerque, New Mexico: "Growing up, we had Spam with brown sugar and mustard, like a small, ‘pretend’ ham. I can picture Papa now (who cooked our meals) caring the Lilliputian size main course, just like a ham!" Send you Spam experiences to me and be in the running for a wonderful basket of goodies. See my website for details. I’ll be selecting one entry to be featured each week on Murderati until June, when the winner will be revealed!

11 thoughts on “A Mixed-Up Sense of Style

  1. JT Ellison

    Great information, Naomi. I’ve heard about the dreaded post-it notes, and you’ve cleared the issue up for me. As a confirmed comma splicer, I salute you.

  2. Elaine

    Oh, boy, did this hit home for me! I am the most comma challenged person ever to take pen to paper, or well, finger to keyboard. I just LOVE commas. And speaking of post-it notes, my last three copy editors all had a different idea about commas too.

  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    It’s funny you should write about this, because I just received the copyedited draft of my manuscript from my publisher.

    No post-it notes, but there are a number of spelling and punctuation corrections and some places where the copyeditor felt compelled to correct grammar to the detriment of voice.

    The power of STET should save me there.

    I’ll tell you, this being my first book, seeing all the little notations was a bit confusing at first. I had to do an online search for proofreader’s marks to understand some of them.

    For example, I had thought the copyeditor had gone through and cut all of my beloved — dashes — but on closer inspection I notice there’s a little “m” below each, which I’ve discovered means to replace the dashes with an em dash.

    Color me stupid.

    This year has certainly been an education.

  4. Naomi


    A good point about proofreader’s marks. For those who are unfamiliar with them, you can go to the Merriam-Webster site:


    I guess they call them “em-dashes” because the dash should be as wide as an M. En-dashes, on the other hand, are shorter and should be used for dates, i.e. 1960-70.

    Since I’ve written in third person in the past, I haven’t had to deal with the grammar vs. voice issue. But that also is an excellent point. I can see writers getting frustrated with their voice being changed to be more in keeping with grammatical standards.

  5. Elaine

    Many a ‘voice’ has been ruined/stilted because of ‘correct’ grammar and just wait until an editor does that with dialogue!! There is a thing called ‘style’ and if that’s where you’re being pinged, stick to your guns. Nicely, of course! Editors are to aid you, not rewrite your book.

  6. Pari

    Naomi,”P.R. flack?”/ Excuuuuse me.

    Rules are made to be broken and, apparently from your post, I’ve kept many copyeditors employed.

    Re: Spam, did I tell you about when I was a member of the Albuquerque Press Club and we put on our first Spamathon?

    We got quite a turnout. The breast of spam was my favorite, but Spam Jerky won.

    What I liked most about our event is that we got real metro judges to judge the contest and they wore their black robes for the event. There was one beautiful judge–petite, graceful, lovely. Her expression when she tasted the Spam meringue pie was broadcast on nightly television throughout New Mexico.

  7. Elaine

    Spam meringue pie? Did I read that right? Pari! Didn’t you know I’ve been felled with the bug and bronchitis? I mean, did I need to read Spam Meringue Pie??? I have to go lie down now.

  8. Naomi

    Poor Evil E! We’ve discovered her kryptonite.

    And Pari–with your storied resume, I think I’ve found at least one of the Mas Arai Spam Contest judges! I hope you’ll oblige.

  9. Rob Gregory Browne

    Naomi, I actually write in multiple third person, but it’s so restricted that what you’re reading are, basically, the characters’ thoughts — grammar mistakes and all. They think the way they speak.

    On the few passages where I step away and play the role of narrator, I welcome grammatical corrections. Otherwise, stay away. 🙂

    Unfortunately, unless it’s dialogue, there’s no way a CE can really know when the author is doing something intentionally or just made a stupid mistake. So I guess the best route to take is to correct them all.


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