One Manuscript Editor’s Decidedly Non-Boring Take On The Revision of the Chicago Manual of Style

The declaration “there’s a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style” is enough to make even the most dedicated language wonks start running for the door. But what with the copy-editor’s possible renaissance and the fact that, well, there is a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style out, we figured we’d take a look behind the scenes: how do those usage mavens really put together this reference book that’s the veritable bible for book authors and editors?

Russell David Harper served as principal reviser for the sixteenth edition of Chicago. That means he was responsible for actually drafting the manuscript as well as outlining the new edition and coordinating sometimes contentious changes between contributors. He had “a lot of help” but this is still one heck of a job.

Carol Saller, aka The Subversive Copy Editor and the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A, asked him what it was like

CAROL: So, Russell, tell me: when you were asked to revise CMOS for the sixteenth edition, did you have any fears or reservations, and if so, what were they, and did you get over them?

RUSSELL: Well yes. My first fear was for my family. I knew the Manual well, and I knew what a revision would mean. (They survived.) Next, I worried for my safety. My third-floor office at the time—in the attic of a hundred-year-old house in Ithaca, New York—trembled and swayed whenever a city bus or fire truck passed by (about every twenty minutes). So I resolved to make daily backups of every stage of the manuscript to a variety of off-site servers, leaving passwords and instructions with a close and highly literate family member across the Atlantic.

CAROL:…For me, one of the most interesting and satisfying aspects of the revision process was the way in which issues like this were broached and settled in passionate but civilized group e-mailings. Looking at my archive, I can see messages titled “I’m probably hallucinating,” “Prissy distinctions,” “Tearing my hair o’er Gruyère,” and on one day, fifteen messages between you …and me with the subject heading “Consistency issue with (not) examples.”

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the more comprehensive style guides out there; Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty says that it contains way more than other guides but that comprehensiveness makes it difficult to find what you’re looking for. And judging by the interview with Russell David Harper, she couldn’t be more right. Harper had to deal with everything from typography (do you hyphenate simple fractions used as nouns, as in “my share is two-thirds”?) to Unicode to XML. That’s a far cry from “simple” stuff like serial commas or writing in the active voice.

It’s like they say: it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it.