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Can electronic style manuals replace the paper format?

While reading last week’s New Yorker, in which two of my favorite writers had articles about two of my least favorite people (Jeffrey Toobin on Arlen Specter and Ken Auletta on Lou Dobbs), I noticed a small advertisement toward the back of the magazine:

The Chicago Manual of Style is now available online.

One of the great benefits of freelancing is that I can work from anywhere. Having to lug around style manuals, however, hinders my mobility. So the ad got me thinking about electronic style manuals: might they make it easier to travel?

Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks about this new product:

  • It only is available online. So if you are going to rely on it, you need to have Internet access.
  • Annual subscriptions cost $25. As the hardcopy costs $35 (with free shipping) on Amazon.com and the manual is not updated every year, the website is more expensive.
  • My copy of Chicago—as I’m sure is the case with many other writers and editors—is dog-eared. I’m not sure how to replicate that timesaver online.

Chicago, however, is available as a CD-ROM. I figured that format might better suit my needs as it’s only a one-time purchase and it doesn’t require Internet access.

Then I read the feedback on Amazon.com: “The software implementation permits users to read only a single numbered paragraph of the book at a time: those who know the print edition will readily understand that having to click one’s mouse repeatedly to move from paragraph 17:148 to 17:149 to 17:150, each occupying just a few lines on separate screens, is an unbelievably cumbersome way to use this essential reference tool.”

So much for not having to cart around the big orange book any more.

Other style manuals have been similarly clumsy in their electronic formats. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, which I reviewed earlier, comes with a CD-ROM, but it does not work on Macs and most reviewers have deemed the disc useless. And while The Economist’s Style Guide is available online, other than The Economist I don’t know of any publications that use it.

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3 Responses to Can electronic style manuals replace the paper format?

  1. Dean Blobaum December 4, 2006 at 4:50 pm #

    Zach,

    Note I’m with the publisher.

    The main reason we developed both an online edition (and a CD-ROM) of the Manual is searchability. A frequent complaint about reference works like the Manual is that it’s too hard to find information in them–that’s why you have those dog-eared pages, right?

    I urge you to do two things:

    (1) Test drive the online version; you can use it for 30 days for free. Yes, you need internet access to use it, but thousands of people are finding that it is very useful, even if they already own the print edition. The interface is functional and elegant.

    (2) Take customer comments on Amazon.com with a grain of salt. Is it difficult to read the CD-ROM edition paragraph by paragraph the way you can read the book? Well, yes, but the Manual isn’t a novel for goodness sake. You don’t read it from beginning to end. A cogent criticism of any electronic reference work should address how well the search utility works, not how easy it is to read pages consecutively. (When I was a bored child, I used to read the dictionary page by page, but if the electronic Websters priveleged that sort of functionality over search I would never use the electronic version.)

  2. Zach Everson December 5, 2006 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks Dean. I took your advice and signed up for a trial account for The Chicago Manual of Style’s online iteration. While I was impressed with the layout and ease of use, two of my main concerns still exist:

    • The online style manual doesn’t save me from having to schlep around the hard copy as there’s no guarantee I’ll have free Internet access where I am working. I often write and edit at Starbucks and other coffee shops that do not have free Wi-Fi. Relying on the Internet version of Chicago would force me to pay exorbitant Wi-Fi fees. And when I’m working on an airplane or in a place where there is no Wi-Fi, I would be without one of my main resources.
    • And, speaking of cost, the online version of Chicago is expensive. There were 10 years between the 14th and 15th editions of Chicago. Assuming a similar gap between the 15th and 16th editions, a $25 introductory subscription fee for this year, and $30 annually thereafter, it would cost $295 for the online version of a book that costs $34.65 for the hardcopy edition.

    While I’ve never sat down to read Chicago like a novel I do often flip through it while looking up information. For example, when creating a bibliography I’ll start at the rules about punctuating authors, flip to the ones pertaining to titles, then publishers, and so on. That approach seems easier than having to retreat to an index each time I want to find something.

    I would be interested in testing the CD-ROM, however, to see if it’s something I might want to try, but $37 is a lot of money to spend on something that I might not use—especially as software can’t be returned just because one doesn’t like it.

    As for your advice to “take customer comments on Amazon.com with a grain of salt,” what information do you recommend I use when deciding whether or not to buy a product? Suggestions from a publisher or manufacturer who profits from my purchase? Feedback from people who own a product is one of the best ways of determining whether or not it is something that will meet my needs.

    And, furthermore, business pundits have hailed Amazon.com’s decision to allow customers to review products as empowering for consumers. (Disclaimer: I’ve written reviews on Amazon.com and own stock in the company.)

  3. Dean Blobaum December 5, 2006 at 2:21 pm #

    Zach,

    I hope you take some time to explore the online Manual and its interface. It offers multiple avenues to find and browse the contents of the Manual. You can enter through the TOC, the index, or by using the search box. Once you are at a numbered section of the text (a paragraph, nominally, though some numbered sections are longer than a paragraph–section 5.202 is 38 pages in the print edition) you can navigate forward to the next paragraph and back to the previous one. Plus at any paragraph you are presented with the headings for two paragraphs before and two paragraphs after the current one. You never have to “retreat to the index” unless that is your preferred method of finding your way.

    In our usability testing for the online Manual we found that some people prefer to use the TOC, some prefer the index, and some just use the search box. Some prefer the CD-ROM to the online version, purely on functional and usability grounds. Some prefer the online for the same reasons. Some would never use anything but the printed book.

    As to reviews on Amazon, note I said “a grain of salt,” not the whole box. I certainly don’t mean to disparage Amazon reviewers in general, or William Cronon (the author of that review) in particular. He’s a wonderful writer and you should buy and read all his books, especially the one on Chicago. But he clearly prefers the print experience of a text. Electronic editions, I expect and I hope, are going to offer something different than a page-by-page view of the text. If not, what’s the point?

    Thanks for the opportunity to dialogue.

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