Friday, January 22, 2016

Chicago Style: I'm Not Talking Pizza by Dawne Webber

I was a comma neurotic.

neu·rot·ic: often or always fearful or worried about something: tending to worry in a way that is not healthy or reasonable. Merriam-Webster.

Comma rules eluded me. If I couldn’t manage to remember a handful of them, how would I ever memorize the entire comma canon? I wondered if this lack of comma knowledge would affect my writing professionally, as in with potential agents and editors. “Don’t worry about it,” a friend reassured me. “Publishers have editors to do that for you.” I breathed a sigh of relief and went on my merry way.

But I soon learned that, although grammatical perfection is not required in submissions to agents and editors, near perfection should be the goal. Melissa Donovan sums it up perfectly in her post, “10 Reasons Why Writers Should Learn Good Grammar”:

How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice. Writing Forward

And Kate S. has a logical answer to the question “Do you have to be good at grammar to get published?”:

The problem is that there are so many people out there trying to get published who ARE good at grammar. If an editor is looking at your MS and at an MS with an equally good story, characterization, writing style, etc., but with better grammar, the editor is going to chose the story with better grammar. Stack Exchange

At least I didn’t need to memorize the comma rules. They were all over the place. I could use the Gregg Reference manual that I’d picked up years ago, or I could Google how to use commas.
There came a point when I began to suspect that I was not, in fact, comma deficient. My memory wasn’t the problem (so much). The problem was that comma rules varied depending on the source, and there were many sources.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, writer friends began dropping words like Oxford comma, AP, and Chicago style. A one-time journalist turned fiction writer was always disparaging one of them, but I could never remember which one. Then to add to the chaos, my daughter’s college courses required her to use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style. Exactly how many styles were there? And which was correct? It was enough to give me nightmares.

To prevent others in my situation from having nightmares, here are the three most common style guides and what type of writing they’re used for:
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities.
  • The AP Stylebook is the prime reference for those in the news and public relations fields.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is the guide for authors, editors and publishers of books, periodicals and journals.

Easy enough. I’m an author so the CMS would be my guide. But the debates were so intense (violent in some cases) that I decided to check with the experts, my editor friends on Twitter. Only after they agreed that the CMS was the style book for writers, did I rush to order my very own Chicago Manual of Style.

If you’ve never seen one, you cannot imaging the information bursting from its lengthy 1026 pages. It’s amazing. Let me tell you, this baby is not only about grammar and punctuation. Who’d ever heard of rectos and versos, much less knew what they were? It’s fascinating reading (for a little while).

Novelists everywhere owe The Chicago Manual of Style their gratitude. It’s an unsung hero of our times.

Dawne Webber is represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. Ask Me to Wait, her YA contemporary novel, is currently on submission. Dawne lives in Troy with her husband and five children. They keep her sane amid the insanity of writing. 

This post was first published on Dawne's blog. Learn more about Dawne and find a wealth of information about writing and publishing at

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Everything you ever wanted to know about MFA programs. We have a team of students and graduates from various MFA/MA programs ready to answer your questions. Send your questions to me at, and I'll forward them to our experts.


  1. I'm better at commas than I use to be, mostly because I forced myself to read up on some of the more common comma rules to make sure I wasn't saying the wrong thing when I critiqued someone else's chapter.

    Your title is especially appropriate considering you're organizing the SCBWI author/illustrator get-together at Shield's Pizza on Feb. 20th.

    1. You're very insightful, Ken. I hope to see you at Shields at which time I will administer a comma quiz.

  2. The one place I always get hung up is with phrases like "Tossing her hat aside Karen settled into the restaurant booth." In my world, there should be a comma after "aside," but I see this missing more and more often. Somewhere I was taught that a natural pause should include a comma. Since I don't have a CMS (I have an AP, maybe I should consider becoming a columnist so I won't have to buy a new reference), I'll have to refer to my Twitter friends as well. By the way, I'm new around here. Just joined SCBWI (mostly because it's terribly difficult to remember that acronym), but have been writing for more years than I care to admit. I'm in Oxford, where there is no Shields but lots of commas. This is where we grow them, that's why we're so militant about their continued use. Imagine the impact on the comma farmers...tragic.

    See you down the road!

    1. I always question comma placement in sentences just like you described. Welcome to SCBWI, Ron!

  3. I write non-fiction articles for attorney websites and have had to look up some of those comma rules to try to be grammatically correct. Sometimes I still wonder.