An editor takes the fear out of The Chicago Manual of Style

UChicago Press editor Carol Fisher Saller says the reader matters more than the rulebook

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

After decades of advising readers and writers, Carol Fisher Saller has settled on her favorite type of question.

“Someone is in a language dispute with a colleague, a spouse, a student or a friend,” said the longtime manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press. “And they always have the same phrase: ‘My fill-in-the-blank insists that…’

“I always try to coach the asker into some tolerance for the other point of view. It is my favorite answer if I can say, ‘You’re both right.’”

This type of openness and flexibility may come as a surprise—especially coming from one of the people behind The Chicago Manual of Style. Too often, editors are regarded with fear, characterized as steely authorities slashing red pens left and right. Instead of collaborators, they loom as stern gatekeepers, eager for the chance to slap down draconian rules.

As a contributing editor at UChicago Press and the Manual’s de facto public face, Saller has spent much of her career trying to fix that misconception. To her, style guides are simply guides, couched with words like “may,” “sometimes” and “usually.” What should matter most is context and clarity, she said, prioritizing the reader over a set of rules.

Saller would know. She was chief copy editor of the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, revered by style sticklers and grammar geeks everywhere. Before retiring from the Press last year, Saller wrote The Subversive Copy Editor, which she considers “a relationship book” for writers and editors. That book grew directly out of her 20 years as the voice of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A, a regular feature with tens of thousands of subscribed fans.

A quick glance reveals the reason behind that loyalty. Since it began in 1997, the Q&A has embraced playfulness and snark, injecting some fun into a topic that can often feel staid and serious. Some notable samples:

Q. What does it mean when the name of a person is presented in all caps?

A. On an office door, nothing. On a birthday cake, probably nothing. In a sentence like “NAME IN ALL CAPS is very important and powerful,” it could mean that the person is very important and powerful, or it might only mean that they wish they were.

Q. When and how often is it appropriate to use the slash (/) character that delineates terms of similar meaning?

A. Use it until just before it becomes annoying. (You get to decide when that is.)

Q. Can I use the first person?

A. Evidently.

Saller helped create the Q&A more than two decades ago in order to rid the Press of an unwelcome burden: phone calls. Although some staffers enjoyed talking about style matters with whoever happened to dial in, most regarded the calls as an annoyance.

“People resented the intrusion into our work,” she said.

What began as a practical solution blossomed into a platform for the Press to display its personality—and to prove that editors aren’t just out to do battle. The Q&A also exposed Saller to the angst, indecision and tentativeness plaguing both editors and writers. In 2009, she wrote The Subversive Copy Editor to try and relieve that stress, to tell her audience that “negotiation can be done in a kinder, gentler way.”

That book outed Saller as the “A” in the online Q&A, turning her into a minor celebrity in copyediting circles. Requests for interviews and appearances at conferences gave her a chance to become an ambassador of sorts for UChicago Press and “Chicago style.”

The title of her The Subversive Copy Editor is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. Much of what Saller preaches isn’t all that subversive: The Chicago Manual of Style, as well as other style guides, have long been written with flexibility in mind. But that message gets lost when anxious writers look for specific rules, or when overzealous editors cling to rules as a buoy.

“I think most editors start off that way because you don’t know enough when you’re starting out,” Saller said. “All you have is your little bag of rules. As you read more and learn more, you see how they get in the way, or were never good rules to begin with.”

This isn’t to say that The Chicago Manual of Style isn’t important. Shortly after the Press was founded in 1891, it issued a sheet of style rules. The sheet became a pamphlet, and in 1906, became an actual book. Now a publishing industry staple, the 17th edition of CMOS was released in 2017 with 1,144 pages including the bibliography and index.

After all, it’s hard to know when to bend rules—or break them—if you don’t know how they work.

“The Manual gives Chicago an identity in the publishing world,” Saller said. “‘Chicago style’ is something that’s known and respected everywhere. In that way, it has helped spread the reputation of the University itself.”

Although she continues to blog occasionally for the Manual, Saller’s retirement last year has allowed her to return full-time to creative writing. Her most recent children’s book, the middle-grade novel Eddie’s War, drew inspiration from her father’s World War II boyhood diaries. Her short play Driving Lesson was featured in two playwriting festivals in 2018.

Still, she looks back on her editing career with fondness.

“I think it takes a certain personality to enjoy copy editing,” Saller said. “It’s hard work, but there is enjoyment in difficult, absorbing work. To be able to help in the creation of a book that’s a good read is a satisfying task.”