MAKE WAY FOR THE LATEST, GREATEST EDITORS’ [AND OTHERS’] BIBLE:
by Marta Steele
hat of The Chicago
Manual of Style (
What concerned me as an editor was the process of writing, editing, and producing what has evolved from essentially a style sheet for publishing professionals and printers into a 964-page magisterial compendium used by a highly expanded community. I could not obtain the exact breakdown and statistics of users by profession, but 75,000 copies have already sold since August 15. In these first three months after publication, more copies sold than that best-selling fourteenth edition sold in its entire first year. What does this statistic mean? In this age of anti-intellectualism, more and more “people who work with words” find a need for this most outstanding (and difficult, though user-friendly in many new ways) reference, that is, are concerned with style, etiquette, and the technicalities of turning words on a page into published material. In other words, this statistic seemingly contradicts the notion of anti-intellectualism or might instead result from the population explosion. I take it as a positive harbinger. The more books sell, the more people read them, the more literate they become: the language is excellent and the organization, infinitely rational and “enlightened” in an era that is supposedly moving away from this tendency, away from words into other types of images and consciousness.
I directed my questions to
Margaret Mahan, managing editor at the
“I revised all the chapters—some with considerable input from various colleagues and others—except for 4 (copyright and permissions), 5 (grammar and usage), 14 (math), and the appendix [There are eighteen chapters and two appendixes]. A number of minor innovations scattered through most chapters were mine, but all were okayed by others. In doing my revision, I rekeyed entire chapters—it was the best way to think, to tighten, and to provide myself with an eerily searchable set of files.”
Steele: What about CMS interests you the most?
Mahan: “Chapters 6, 7, and 8 (punctuations, spelling, and compounds, names and terms)—core chapters for editing almost any kind of material. But I love the whole book.”
Steele: What aspect makes you proudest?
Mahan: “Reducing verbiage while regaining clarity (with a few exceptions).”
Steele: What was your favorite part of the task of revision?
“Getting input from colleagues and others who formed an informal circle
of advisers. I e-mailed brief polls on matters that I considered changing but
needed consensus for, and I phoned or corresponded with many people with
specialist knowledge--for example, a former
Steele: Can you give an example of a style change that you regret?
Mahan: “The preference for roman punctuation following italicized words (some word processors automatically italicize commas, semicolons, etc., after italicized words)—though I took a poll on it, which yielded a clear if not overwhelming yes. By the time we were in page proof, I discovered that Microsoft Word automatically italicized commas, semicolons, and other marks after italicized words. But both options remain open, so do whatever you like, folks!”
Steele: What do readers most complain about? What do they like the best?
Mahan: “In each of our recent editions, some readers have complained about the index, although all our indexes have been fine. No doubt many will criticize us for recommending postal-style state abbreviations, which require only two letters and no interior punctuation. I don’t know what readers like best; they seldom tell us” [See my commentary above].
Steele: What, in general, is the most difficult part of copyediting?
Mahan: “Meeting the deadline while retaining high standards up to the last page of the notes and bibliography.”
Steele: Could you perform this gargantuan labor again?
“Catharine Seybold and Bruce Young edited the classics twelfth edition
and also the thirteenth. John Grossman did the fourteenth and then retired. I
retired and started work on the fifteenth almost immediately. Without having
hands-on experience as managing editor at
Steele: The first edition disclaims in its preface, “[T]hroughout…it is assumed that no regulation contained therein is absolutely inviolable.” I have the feeling that many people want to be told what to do by a book like CMS, to find must (or other imperative forms) or should in lieu of more polite suggestions, including the passive voice. CMS style seems to want to avoid imperative forms and leave the realm of options nearly wide open. Can you explain this? Your broad range of readers?
Mahan: “The manual, at least since the twelfth edition, has always offered guidelines rather than imperatives. Unlike some editors, I don’t fear the passive voice, as long as it isn’t used to avoid precision or responsibility  And the fifteenth, by the way, does indeed use should quite frequently (see, e.g., paragraphs 6.35-39 and many others) as well as a few imperatives (e.g., 5.202, under whoever, whomever)…
“I was advised to keep options down, but
when I changed a rule—which didn’t happen that often—I found it very difficult
not to offer the old rule as a still acceptable option. I added a few options
that I like but others don’t, such as the omission of the possessive s with a name like Descartes (“Descartes’s philosophy” bothers the daylights out of me,
though it’s logical and correct). The review chided
Steele: I notice how the chapter on illustrations and tables has changed. Would you say that the advent of computers into publishing has facilitated or complicated the use of illustrations and tables in books and other media?
Mahan: “I did quite a lot of work on those. So far, no one has noticed.
Perhaps no one refers to them! . . . In earlier editions there were no
illustrations of illustrations, which struck me as unfortunate. So we selected
samples from various
Steele: What convinced you to branch out to American Sign Language (an innovation in the fifteenth edition)?
Mahan: “An editor wrote to us a year or two before we started work on CMS 15 and suggested that we include some material on the way ASL is conveyed in print—for example, in ASL manuals. We agreed that not only would it be useful, even if only to a relatively small number of readers, but would offer something brand-new to CMS. We asked Gallaudet University Press to furnish the section, and I found it remarkably refreshing.”
Steele: I’ve been told that there are few if any equivalents to CMS in other languages—Le bon usage in French is more of a grammar than a style book. How do you account for this?
“I’m no authority, but believe publishers in other countries, especially
Steele: What a treasure. Thanks so much. You have shed a great deal of light on the experience of editing such a behemoth project, the likes of which could absorb a lifetime.
Copyright © Marta Steele 2003, 2004, 2010. All rights reserved.
 “copy editors, proofreaders, and ‘other gropers in the labyrinth of style’.”
 Taken from another interview of Margaret Mahan [see further, below] in Copy Editor by Lisa Burrell: “[A] remarkable number of users of the manual are not in academic publishing. Indeed, many aren’t in publishing at all. We’ve broadened the scope out of respect for these people and, of course, to improve sales.”
 The eleventh edition was the longest lasting, “so far.”
 The latest edition of CMS refers to copy editors as manuscript editors, as did the twelfth edition. This, according to the press packet, which also informs us that at the turn of the nineteenth century proofreaders were above copy editors, who merely read aloud from the copy to proofreaders who made most of the corrections. The second edition, which came out soon after the first, responded to another step in the evolution of the manual’s reading public, the advent of the profession of librarian in this country.
 Please be aware that CMS produced a magisterial and lengthy table on whether or not to hyphenate scores of different compound prototypes; the fifteenth edition condenses the space by using a glossary format but includes more material.
 I italicize here since so many stylists (teachers and editors, e.g.) advise avoiding the passive in most instances.
 Thanks also to Chicago Marketing Manager Ellen Gibson and Chicago Managing Editor Anita Samen for their contributions to my research for this article.