Chicago manual taps Essex Jct. resident, wordsmith for 17th edition

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Peter Olson holds a copy of the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Olson served on the manual’s advisory board, drawing from more than 20 years experience in copyediting. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Peter Olson is a neatnik.

From the refrigerator to the cupboards to the spotless living room, everything has its place. Order is found even on the front porch, where most relegate belongings unfit for life elsewhere: On Olson’s, carefully positioned rows of shoes point forward, as if waiting for a family photo.

“That’s what draws me to this work,” Olson said last Friday. “It’s taking a document that’s a little disheveled, and probably has missing parts and parts not in the right place, and tidying it all up.”

Olson works for Sheridan Journal Services, a Waterbury-based company that contracts with primarily scientific journals and STEM-type societies. He’s been with the company for 22 years, including the last 16 overseeing an army of freelance copyeditors, and recently added a prestigious name to his résumé: The Chicago Manual of Style.

Impressed by his talk at a science conference in 2014, a fellow panelist asked for Olson’s help on the newest revision, earning him a slot on the advisory board.

For the uninitiated, Olson describes the Chicago Manual of Style as the “go-to manual — the definitive resource — for grammar and usage and writing style.”

It’s generally used by business, history and fine arts writing, though many of Olson’s STEM journal affiliates subscribe to the manual for the author-date citation system.

The Washington Post calls the Chicago manual the “rule of reason made flesh.” Publishers Weekly calls it the “indispensable” style resource for those who “attend to the minutiae of written expression.”

The University of Chicago Press published its first manual in 1906. A skinny 200 pages, it cost a half-dollar plus 6 cents for postage and handling. Sixteen editions later, the manual has grown to over 1,000 pages.

The newest addition reflects how technological advancements have shifted workflows and publication formats over the last seven years.

Other chapters expand the glossary of problematic words and phrases, while a new section helps writers and publishers wade through gender-neutral pronouns and bias-free language.

As the scribbler’s bible, each new edition ripples through the publishing world, and this year’s offering answers questions like whether to ditch the dash in e-mail (yes), drop the case in Internet (uh-huh) and employ the singular “they” (only informally, and if unavoidable).

Not everyone is on board with the revolution. One Washington Post commenter reported plans to still use “e-mail” to stick it to the “self-appointed grammar police.”

Olson’s influence falls more into the citation sphere, so he’s unlikely to catch much flak. He was tasked with churning through the draft to offer comments, both when prompted by the notes from the editorial staff and whenever he felt internal compulsion.

Olson admits none of his suggestions were “earth shattering,” like removal of the serial or Oxford comma, which some argue is confusing, pretentious and redundant. (Note: The Associated Press Style, subscribed to by most newspapers, including this one, disdains its use.)

In fact, Olson had yet to read through the book since he received a courtesy copy. After a quick peruse over the weekend, he found some contributions.

For one, he suggested a brief statement reflecting the trend of journals subscribing to a new publishing model that assigns an ID number rather than a traditional page range. The new manual reflects that change in full, in addition to another section on how to retract an erroneous article.

Though not the sexiest changes, they solidified Olson’s mark on the influential publication. His participation also helped him secure another advisory gig: He’s currently on the board of the American Medical Association Manual’s 11th edition.

The big-time roles might seem like much needed variance in a profession where the clear majority of time is spent in the linguistic trenches. Yet Olson, who loved puzzles as a child, finds both interest and pride in his day-to-day work. By helping authors achieve understanding as they write about advancements that could one day help cure ailments, or better the lives of an entire generation, Olson feels he can contribute in a positive way.   

He does, however, have another confession: Much of what he reads goes over his head.

That’s fair, seeing as his daily readings are a much different beast than the works of, say, Upton Sinclair, that were published around the Chicago Manual’s first edition.

“It’s kind of a funny job,” Olson said. “I don’t really know the content, but I know enough to be able to navigate through a guide and know when sentence structures are wrong.”

Two decades have helped acclimate him to the material, though he still follows the adage: Know what you don’t know.     Quick to point out he’s not so regimented that he’s inflexible, Olson said believes in the importance of standards because too much disarray can affect our understanding.

“Not to get too philosophical about it,” he said.