This month we're talking to Russell Harper about revising The Chicago Manual of Style Shop Talk

If you have ever submitted a question to our Chicago Manual of Style Q&A (and we encourage you to do so here), Russell Harper may have been one of the editors considering your question. Russell is especially qualified to answer CMOS questions thanks to his role as the principal reviser for the sixteenth edition. This means he worked closely with the Manuscript Editing Department at the University of Chicago Press as well as the CMOS Board of Advisors to write the text of the sixteenth edition. He also served as its nominal author through all the stages of publication.

For this month’s Shop Talk, he chatted with fellow CMOS Q&A editor, Carol Fisher Saller (known to many as the Subversive Copy Editor) about what it took to revise the sixteenth edition of the Manual.

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: Okay, so I’ll add “courageous” to that list of attributes. Readers perhaps know that in-house staff and our board of advisors reviewed various drafts of your revision. On your very first pass did you labor in solitude or sometimes consult with others?

RUSSELL: In one sense, I labored in solitude, more than six hundred miles from the press building in Hyde Park. But in reality, I consulted many people, living and dead, while I worked.

  1. At my elbow were the eleventh through the fourteenth editions of the Manual (the manuscript itself was derived from the fifteenth edition). Before making any change, no matter how small, I investigated treatment of the matter across earlier editions. (I must remember to return the now rare eleventh and twelfth editions, though I hate to part with them.)

  2. Also at my elbow was a stack of papers annotated by Mary Laur (gatekeeper of corrections to the Manual) and full of suggestions submitted either to the Q&A or directly to the press. For example, there were three letters from a retired editor who begged us to drop the hyphen in simple fractions used as nouns. (His third and final letter announced his decision not to buy the fifteenth edition.) That usage is perfectly logical (My share is two thirds), and some style manuals (e.g., APA) follow it. So in my draft of the revision I changed our own recommendation in order to gauge reactions from the team. (I did this a lot; there’s no better way to find out how an editor feels than to change a rule.) Feelings ran high toward keeping the hyphen for the appearance of consistency across all simple fractions, so that’s what we did.

  3. The press generously sent me copies of the latest editions of APA, AMA, MLA—anything I didn’t already own. I was given full access to the Chicago Journals website and, through the University of Chicago Library, to the online OED, Britannica, and other essentials. The press reimbursed me for online subscriptions to AP, Bluebook, Merriam-Webster, and several other valuable resources. And I found the first and second editions of Fowler’s at the local (Tompkins County) Friends of the Library Book Sale. (I couldn’t bear to ask my former office mates in the manuscript-editing department to give up their own copies.)

  4. Like most editors these days, I consulted the web constantly—not only to gauge current usage but also to immerse myself in the latest practices and usages of the W3C, the Unicode Consortium, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the Académie française, and other keepers of standards.

  5. I consulted the press’s tech people on XML-related esoterica, especially in the beginning. We figured out a way to retain the XML tags used for the online version of the fifteenth edition in a word processor, which made it possible to revise and share electronic versions of the files with everyone, regardless of technical expertise.

  6. Finally, you’ll recall that I was in the habit of e-mailing you and Anita [Samen, managing editor at the press] and others to ask you to reveal your true feelings about such matters as the fifteenth edition’s preference for “Fifty-seventh Street” rather than “Fifty-Seventh Street” (not to mention “Fifth and Sixth avenues” versus “Fifth and Sixth Avenues”) or to determine whether there was any good reason to continue to advise a different treatment of titles in the author-date style.

In sum, I had a lot of help!

CAROL: Indeed, I do remember. In fact, 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 [members of the copyediting team] Ruth Goring and Erin DeWitt and me with the subject heading “Consistency issue with (not) examples.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I seem to recall that when you finished the first draft of the revision, you sent it to everyone on the CMOS Board of Advisors as well as the in-house team, who individually marked it up and sent it back to you. Somehow you read and responded to two dozen versions of the thing, all with no doubt conflicting suggestions. How did all that back-and-forthing ever come to an end?

RUSSELL: And don’t forget that you and the rest of the in-house team and the board reviewed and commented on my detailed proposal, well before any work started on the revision. Fortunately, most reviewers were willing to work in a word processor; for those who preferred not to we annotated a draft based on their handwritten or e-mailed comments. It was a cinch to create a collated version (using Word), to which I added my own responses. These were in turn reviewed and further commented on by project managers David Morrow and Mary Laur—a process that went several rounds. Then the in-house team met in Chicago to discuss all of this (I was lured back to the press by the promise of catered sandwiches). There was a lot of animated debate (one editor said to me in the nicest way possible that she’d had the urge to slap me—something involving titles by Raymond Carver and the Beatles), and much progress was made, though nothing yet was written in stone. Still, I went back home and prepared a revised “consensus” version of the manuscript that would in turn be delivered to you and your team.

CAROL: So far you’ve been more than generous in acknowledging all the help you had with the revision, so now please indulge me and take a moment to credit yourself. What’s your personal legacy in the sixteenth edition? Which of your contributions are you most excited about?

RUSSELL: There’s a lot of anxiety surrounding the idea that paper is disappearing from publishing. In fact, it disappeared years ago. (This I learned as a typesetting terminal jockey in the mid-1980s.) Today, thanks in part to PDF, virtually all publishers are in the business of making electronic products. Some of them—especially book publishers—choose to deliver this product as ink on paper. And some editors choose to edit on paper. But paper has become an option rather than a necessity. (It’s the electronic version that is a necessity.) So I wanted the Manual to move away from the idea that paper plays anything other than a supporting role in publishing. (Disclosure: in my spare time, I read novels—the ones with bindings—and half my music collection is on vinyl.) Once that’s clear, it’s easier to focus on the essentials—like what exactly is a caron, and is it the same as a haček?

Which brings us to Unicode. The č in “haček” is crowned with a wedge-shaped caron—also called a haček (or inverted circumflex). But if, for example, you want to make absolutely sure you’re using the right character for ě (which can look very much like an e with a breve), you can use your word processor to choose Unicode character 011B. The Manual lists Unicode numbers for these and other characters along with the languages that use them. Anyone can wade through the Unicode Consortium’s tables (which now list more than one hundred thousand characters), but I hope readers will welcome our condensed treatment.

These are small things that touch only parts of the Manual. I also wanted to make sure that the expertise of the [University of Chicago Press] Journals Division played a larger role. The new material on XML grew out of the procedures that brought nearly fifty journals—some of them more than a hundred years old—online within just a few years.

CAROL: Russell, that answer is so . . . you. (And it shows why the marketing department didn’t put you in charge of the Twitter campaign.) But I’ll be honest: I wanted you to talk about the changes that will affect all users, not just those who need hačeks! I’m excited that the sixteenth is easier to use. So allow me:

First, you saw that after decades of expanding by accretion, the Manual’s chapters were overdue for reorganization. So now there are three parts. Part I deals with publishing processes (manuscript prep, editing, proofing, figures and tables, permissions); part II with style and usage (the fun stuff: punctuation, spelling, numbers, abbreviations, grammar); and part III with documentation (notes, bibliographies, indexing). All very neat and logical.

Another thing: The original paragraph titles were (naturally) not written with computer searching in mind. For instance, in the chapter on foreign languages, each of twenty languages had a paragraph titled simply “Capitalization.” Now each is titled specifically—e.g., “Portuguese capitalization.” Many paragraph titles were rewritten to be more helpful. Such subtle changes might not be noticed by reviewers, but regular users will notice that it’s easier to find things in the book.

But the biggie—is it too complicated to mention here how CMOS 16 brings author-date documentation style into stylistic line with notes-bibliography style? I think it’s our most audacious change—and perhaps it will temporarily annoy—but ultimately, this streamlining simplifies Chicago-style documentation in such a sensible way that writers and editors will surely appreciate it. Would you like to expand?

RUSSELL: It’s also our simplest change, so simple that I can explain it in 140 characters or less. (Well, would you believe 1,400 or less?)

Chicago’s author-date style grew in part out of the practices at scientific journals. It is customary in many sciences to credit other scientists in the text, and dates are also important: putting names and dates in the text (Sanchez 2009), rather than using note numbers or symbols, provides context for the latest research. But printed journals have space limitations, and many disciplines developed abbreviated styles for their reference lists. Authors’ first names and the titles of journals are routinely abbreviated (often without periods for either), quotation marks for titles are dropped, and so forth.

Earlier editions of the Manual tried to approximate these variant practices with its own variation, with the result that our examples reflected a style that few people actually followed. I decided that we should focus instead on how the author-date system works—what information should be included and where to include it. Writers and editors can find out—as they always have—which publications prefer which abbreviations and whether to put titles in quotation marks or italics.

So now there’s only one “Chicago style” for documentation but two main systems of organization. It’s simple. Really.

CAROL: Simple. And I know you don’t expect me to resist that 140-character challenge. So here goes: CMOS 16 reference-list style: Spell out author names; headline-case titles; italicize book titles, put article titles in quotation marks.