Scariest Forum on the Internet?

Just two weeks after its Feb. 2 launch, The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s new discussion forum already features numerous discussions with titles like “ ‘Predecessor to’ or ‘predecessor of’ “? and “Worst online punctuation abuse?” But the most popular thread thus far is titled “I’m afraid to post here.” Its first message: “Could there be a more intimidating place to post?”

February 18, 2010

Just two weeks after its Feb. 2 launch, The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s new discussion forum already features numerous discussions with titles like “ ‘Predecessor to’ or ‘predecessor of’ “? and “Worst online punctuation abuse?” But the most popular thread thus far is titled “I’m afraid to post here.” Its first message: “Could there be a more intimidating place to post?”

Other commenters echoed that sentiment: “I do fear a grammatical error in posts here because even if everyone is polite enough to ignore it they will surely notice it,” fretted one.

Nevertheless, numerous Chicago Manual acolytes have already managed to overcome their trepidation over airing thoughts in such august grammatical company. While they’ve no doubt been aided in this feat by the lure of $100 in free books (which the press has promised to award at random to one of those who post within 30 days of the forum’s launch), forum users also expressed delight over having “a place to ask questions and enjoy a sense of community with fellow writers and editors,” as one commenter put it.

And that’s exactly the goal of the forum, according to the University of Chicago Press's reference promotions manager, Ellen Gibson: “What we hope to build is a sense of community among our subscribers.”

According to Gibson, many Chicago Manual subscribers are freelance copy editors and others who frequently work from home or in scattered locations where they may not have anyone “to talk about style issues with, or problems that come up in their daily work.”

"People pressed for it for a long time, saying it would help them do their jobs better," said the press's director, Garrett Kiely. "Enhancing the community aspect," he explained, is an important part of what he sees as a major goal of the press and the University of Chicago as a whole: "disseminating quality information to as wide an audience as possible."

In that regard, the forum seems thus far to be a success: users can ask any and all style-related questions ("Is there a rule about using whether or if?") and receive quick responses from others, often citing the Manual itself ("From CMOS 5.202: determine whether; determine if. The first phrasing is irreproachable style; the second is acceptable, though less formal"). The press hopes that this function will finally bridge the long-standing gap between the number of questions that Chicago users submit to its Q&A each month (hundreds, Gibson said) and the number that editors can answer (about 10 every month).

But the forum isn't limited to the nitty-gritty of copy editing; it also includes sections where users can post their questions on author relations ("How does one deal with the frustration of continually correcting the same differences in usage without losing one's temper or alienating the writer?"), professional development ("Have you ever taken a class in copyediting?") and the publishing industry ("How can publishers best utilize Facebook and Twitter for marketing purposes?"), as well as, of course, miscellaneous ("Best way to develop good grammar habits?").

As time goes on, Gibson said, the forum will probably expand to include new topics and areas based on feedback from subscribers. And such feedback -- as one forum user pointed out -- won't just benefit subscribers.

"[I]t's going to make the flow of knowledge go both ways," said Rose Weisburd, a graphic designer in printing services at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who also does freelance editing and proofreading. "The CMOS folks now have a faster way to find out their subscribers' main challenges and customary practices."

Kiely also saw that as a potential advantage of the new forum: "The community of Chicago Manual of Style users is a very passionate group... We generally see it as a good thing seeing what people have to say."

The forum, he said, is just one of many "enhancements" that the University of Chicago Press has made over the years to meet the needs of its customers. Responsiveness, he said, is key. "The... community side of this has driven us in a lot of interesting ways. ...I think that Chicago has always had a tradition of trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit."

The Chicago Manual, Kiely noted, was available online well before the MLA's style manual (in fact, the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing still doesn't have an online version, but the better-known MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers does as of the seventh edition, which came out a year ago; the Chicago Manual of Style has been online for over three years).

Chicago's is also the only major academic style book that's available in an online-only format; the MLA Handbook's online component goes along with the physical book (though users do have the option of signing up online and receiving the book by mail), and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association isn't available online, though its Web site does include supplementary materials and a blog.

So are the other style guides missing out by not growing their online presence in the ways that Chicago is?

Not necessarily, said MLA executive director Rosemary Feal. "Our primary users are students, teachers in an academic setting... [Chicago's] are book publishers." So those using MLA Style are less likely to be interested in talking about "why a semicolon or an ellipsis makes sense in a certain situation"; they're more concerned with "actual issues related to the research paper: How do you know if you're plagiarizing? How do you know what sources to even pick? How do you know if a Web site that you're using is an authoritative scholarly source?"

Questions like that, she said, are best answered by the MLA, which discusses questions brought up by the users of its style guide, conducts research, and makes changes to each successive edition. Which isn't to say that it won't give individual feedback -- the MLA answers every style-related email it receives, she said, and "I personally have certainly responded to MLA Style questions on Twitter."

Still, the MLA is considering other ways that it might improve or grow its online presence. "We are exploring models," Feal said. "We're looking at options to deliver this material to as wide a readership and usership as possible, in ways that work best for the users."

For the Chicago Manual, the new forum seems to be an ideal way to do just that -- though no one is suggesting that the MLA's largely-undergraduate audience be provided with its own forum.

"Is membership going to be open to CMOS subscribers only?" wondered forum user Weisburd.


"Oh good. I don't like to participate in forums that are wide open to the general public because the level of discourse just goes down and starts digging, but I think this forum will be a very convivial place."


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