Right here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook I have recommended some basic style guides that every author should have on his or her shelf, and I don’t want anyone to think that this post in any way reverses my opinion on any of those sources.

But that having been said, if I were (a bit more of) a grammar geek, I would compile a new style guide, specifically for creative writers.

The Chicago Manual of Style tries and almost succeeds at being a sort of “umbrella” style guide, touching as many different styles of writing as it can. There are a couple that are more specialized, like the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook which is written for journalists, or the American Psychiatric Association Publication Manual, which is for scholarly/scientific works. There are others, too, but I have yet to find one good, solid authority on how to edit fiction.

This is not to say that I ever want creative writing to be as strictly codified as the scientific journals, or even the better venues for print journalism. Creative writers need to maintain the freedom to experiment with the form, despite my occasional complaints to the contrary. There are things that bug me as a copy editor, and it can be hard to turn off that part of my brain, but nobody puts William S. Burroughs in a box in my town!

Still, there is some basic structure to the English language and as long as this proposed book begins with a statement of flexibility and forgiveness like:

Rules are made to be broken. Take this advice into account, pick and choose from it as you see fit in the context of each project, and throw it out completely should you wish.

Then I’m okay.

I need to have a place to clearly state things like where the quotation marks go in relation to punctuation. What is a verb of speaking and why, when, and how do you use them? Why fiction should never include the semi-colon, and I mean NEVER EVER. The difference between a short sentence and a sentence fragment. The care and feeding of (what should be the rare, elusive) exclamation mark. One scene/one POV. Multiple tense and lazy tense. Why all bets are off in dialog. The difference (if any) between parentheses and em-dashes, and what, exactly, and em-dash is and why it’s different from a hyphen, two hyphens, or an en-dash.

The list goes on and on. And I’m happy to “teach the controversy” on a lot of things (except semi-colons, which are just evil) so that this isn’t some kind of exercise in creativity-destroying didacticism.

If such a book already exists: So-and-so’s Guide to Fiction Style, PLEASE report its existence in the comments and I will rush out to secure my own copy post haste, then start complaining about all the ways it doesn’t match up with what I was taught by various mentors past and present. I have seen books like Christopher T. Leland’s The Creative Writer’s Style Guide, but this looks like another how-to book on story structure and writing (pacing, effective dialog and description, etc.) than a true style guide, and there are LOADS of how-to books out there. I wrote one myself. What I want is a technical manual, like the CMS.

Please consider this post a call to action.

Who’s with me?



—Philip Athans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Hell, yes. If such a work exists, i’d love to know about it because i’d love to be able to recommend it to the fiction writers i work with. And if it doesn’t exist, we should definitely write it.

    I suspect one of the reasons that such a book doesn’t exist is that for newspaper and academic writing, it’s relatively easy to come up with lists of how things should be. However, fiction is so nebulous and wide open that it implicitly creates rules that defy easy categorization, and which contradict each other at every turn. (“Don’t do A.” “But here’s a book where the guy does A and it totally works!” “Yeah, well… shut up.”) The trick would be to distill out the “core rules” of fiction style and formatting, on which each author creates the “house rules” that make each fiction project unique.

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