November is a difficult month for me because I have a specific goal to accomplish, and I’ve set the bar high. It’s National Novel Writing Month and I have many activities involved with that. I need to add writing time to my already packed schedule, attempting to rebuild my stockpile of short fiction and essays, and am letting everything else fall by the way to do it. Trader Joe and the Microwave are providing my husband with hot meals because I have been known to forget to cook.
For my NaNoWriMo project this year I am writing a variety of short pieces, some technical essays on writing craft, some essays on life and travel, and some short fiction. I am writing for three different markets and we will get to why that distinction is important a little further on.
I’m on the road a lot, and have limited time to get my wordcount. Sometimes I get two or three pages of writing done in the 20 or 30 minutes before I have to leave the house for an appointment. There is something about the pressure of knowing I will have to quit at a certain time that forces me to be more productive than I would ordinarily be.
Why is this? When I am pressed for time I use every second to get those ideas out of my head. I don’t have the luxury of stopping to research grammar and questions of style on the good, old, time-wasting internet. Instead I refer to hardcopy reference manuals, unless I absolutely must go out to the internet to research something.
Some references have to be in hardcopy, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most comprehensive style guide geared for writers of essays, fiction, and nonfiction. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but the information there must be looked at with a critical eye as it is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice.
Instead I always recommend The Chicago Manual of Style to authors who are writing fiction they someday hope to publish, and who want to know about sentence construction. The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.
Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. There is no one style guide that will fit every purpose. Each essay and book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.
The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer back to this book when they have questions.
- Chicago Manual of Style ( )
- Microsoft Style for Technical Publication ( )
Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.
For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.
If you develop a passion for the words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books.
Some of my best ideas have come about under a time crunch. Normally when I am writing on a stream-of-consciousness level, I can key about fifty words a minute, which I know is paltry compared to today’s authors who grew up keying their homework rather than writing it in cursive.
I do admit that just because I can key those words does not mean they will all make sense, or be worth reading. That is why we are driven to look at what we just wrote the day after we wrote it. Did it say what I meant? How many times did I use the word “sword” in that particular paragraph and where am I going to find six different alternatives for such a unique weapon? Sword? Blade? Steel? After all, an epee is not a claymore, nor is it a saber. Any reader with a small amount of knowledge will know that, so I have to be careful what synonyms I use. My characters swing a claymore-style of sword which is rarely referred to as “steel.” In literature, that term is more commonly used for epees and rapiers.
It’s a jungle in my head sometimes, and my ancient student edition of Roget’s Thesaurus is no longer my friend. But neither is the modern, online version cutting it. I need more synonyms. Lots, and lots more! Thus I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk and I refer to it regularly. It saves time to use the hardcopy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down the bunny trail of “Wow! I never knew that!”
All in all, I like the way being forced to produce words in a short time helps me lay down a rough draft. But I admit, I do look forward to the end of November, when I can look back on my accomplishments and go back to my normal writing routine of wasting time on the internet researching important things like the life cycle of sand dollars. Who knew those little creatures were so intriguing?