To Tell Your Story, Learn Style Rules

cheerful editor header 2Creativity trumps all. If you have a creative, imaginative, compelling story to tell, you’ll find an editor who wants to buy it and readers who want to snatch it up.

But if you want to control that story, to tell it the way you see and hear it in your mind, here’s my advice: learn style, usage, and grammar rules and increase your vocabulary. Otherwise, you’re ceding control of the story to pesky editors like…me. 🙂 

Few books go to press on a languid schedule that allows author and editor to polish, shape, tweak, revise, rewrite at leisure. While those steps might be involved in getting your story to press, each of them has a deadline attached, and often, those deadlines aren’t particularly generous. So, even if it takes a year from signing the book contract to seeing the book in print, your work during that year might fall within a several-month time period filled with scurrying to meet your editor’s deadlines. And, as each deadline approaches, the editor is going to be making decisions…for you.

Oh, she isn’t going to take complete control from you. But she will be filling the margins of the manuscript with suggestions for story and character development, forcing you to make (relatively) quick decisions on changes. And once she’s done with it, the manuscript comes to people like me, copy editors armed with Chicago Manual of Style, Webster’s 11th (a different dictionary than the one MSWord uses, by the way), and a manual of that publishing house’s particular style rules (one I edit for does not use the Oxford comma, for example, and frowns on the use of colons and semicolons in dialogue).

Before I see the manuscript, the acquiring editor will decide how heavy my edit should be and whether I need to alert her to changes I make. Many times, the editor notes I don’t need to flag changes–I can just go ahead and make them. Again, this doesn’t mean you, the author, don’t get to see these changes. But it does mean you’ll be seeing them on a tight deadline where you will be sorely tempted to stet changes just to get the book to the next step in the process: proofreading.

I am often saddened, when puzzling over how to fix a dangling modifier in a section of prose that “sings,” to think that I, a lowly copy editor, will get to change a lovely piece of writing so that a modifying phrase describes the right thing/person. Am I diluting the beauty of the original narrative? Would the author have preferred a different approach? Maybe. And maybe she’ll have a chance to put the melody back in that sentence. But maybe she’ll be so harried to meet the deadline that she’ll accept my humble attempt at fixing an error even if it’s gray when she uses vibrant color.

More difficult are the words that aren’t quite right, that, according to a dictionary definition, don’t say what the author seems to want to say. I’m just as busy as the others in this process, so I’ll do a quick search for synonyms and offer suggestions (or just insert the most appropriate word). But with more time, the author might have chosen something else or might have chosen to rewrite that passage.

When books are filled with such choices for the editors to make, the author’s own voice becomes muted, her story no longer entirely her own.

So, as boring as it might be, learn those grammar and style rules as best you can. And read widely to increase your vocabulary.

The more you get right in your manuscript, the more you control your voice,  your story.


About Libby Malin Sternberg

I'm a hard-working freelance editor and novelist with many books to my name, published by large and small presses -- everyone from Harlequin to Dorchester to Sourcebooks to Bancroft Press. And I have some indie-pubbed books to my name, as well. I've won some awards for books, been an Edgar nominee for a teen mystery, and have a film option on one novel. I write women's fiction and romance mostly, but do have teen mysteries on my back list. I also offer editing services to authors -- everything from light copy edits to more comprehensive developmental edits. References are available upon request. A major publisher employs me as a regular copy editor, and I used to edit for a small independent press, even making recommendations for manuscript acquisitions. Contact me at LibbyMalinSternberg (at) gmail (dot) com. Check out my books at
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