What Is the Chicago Manual of Style, and Why Should You Care?
Magic writer, if you’re new to this book-writing-and-publishing business (or maybe not so new), you might have heard someone mention something-something-Chicago-style and wondered, what the heck? What does the Windy City have to do with writing a great novel? In a nutshell, everything. Here’s the bare bones answer to the question: What is The Chicago Manual of Style, and why should you care?
The Basics of The Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style is an American English style guide most widely used in the publishing industry. It was first developed in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press, and is currently on its 17th edition.
What’s a Style Guide?
A style guide sets out best practices and most-accepted conventions for language, including spelling, grammar, usage, mechanics, quotation, numbers, and anything else that deals with the writing, preparation, and publication of documents.
A style guide ensures consistency, both within a document and across multiple documents. Consistency is important for establishing a standard and common understanding among readers and across a particular industry.
Style guides are living things that change and grow as language does. They respond to the evolution of common usage and accepted conventions (albeit slowly sometimes).
How Chicago Style Is Used in Publishing
The Chicago Manual of Style is used almost exclusively by trade publishers as the standard style for published books. Some publishers build on it to develop their own “house style,” which might include direct contradictions of the recommendations in Chicago or address certain things that Chicago leaves out.
Since Chicago style skews more heavily toward nonfiction publications, fiction publishers have almost always had to supplement its recommendations with their own house style guide to deal with the multitude of creative ways fiction authors tend to use language. Until this year, there were no formal standard recommendations for fiction directly from the University of Chicago Press. But Amy J. Schneider’s book The Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction was released in March of 2023, and it fills the holes nicely.
Chicago style goes beyond just language treatments, though; it also recommends standards for the editorial process (editing levels and steps, who does what and when, etc.), formatting a manuscript, the parts of a book, and other facets of book production.
How Chicago Differs from Other Styles
The bulk of Chicago-style differences circle around quotation and citation formatting—something fiction authors don’t have to worry about too much (although memoirists might want to have some familiarity with those guidelines).
Three big differences from AP style in particular (AP style is used by newspapers and online news sources) that casual readers might pick up on are:
- Headlines in Chicago style are in title case (every major word capitalized); AP style recommends sentence case (only the first word capitalized).
- Chicago style puts titles of works like books and movies in italics; AP style puts them in quotation marks.
- Chicago style says “yes” to the serial (Oxford) comma; AP says “nope.”
Chicago also defaults to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary on matters of word hyphenation and spelling, which could be markedly different from what other dictionaries list for the same words.
Why You Should Care About Chicago Style
So why should a self-publishing fiction author really care about Chicago style?
I’ll sum it up in four words: you are a publisher.
When you take on the task of self-publishing your book, you become, essentially, a publishing company yourself. You throw your books into the same arena as anything Penguin Random House or HarperCollins puts out. Recall that a style guide establishes best practices and consistency to help uphold a common standard for communication.
Readers (your audience) have spent their entire lives learning and absorbing those common standards from the books they’ve read, books published (most likely) by companies that applied Chicago style to their works. The best practices readers have come to expect from reading material will be what they also expect from your book.
And even though they might not be able to articulate why, when something in a self-published book looks “wrong” to readers, it’s generally because the author/publisher has deviated in a big way from Chicago style or Merriam-Webster’s spellings. And that’s usually when they start leaving icky reviews with the word “errors” sprinkled liberally throughout.
You want your book to look professional, polished, and as close to publishing standards as possible, right?
So, even though it’s not necessary to have an expert-level knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style to write or publish your book, it’s important that you know what it is and care enough to apply it.
If you’re looking for someone who is a Chicago-style expert to apply it to your story, head this way to snag a spot on my editing calendar. I’ll be happy to work my magic on your manuscript so it looks just like anything the Big 5 put out.