I would say that 70% of the time I go looking in The Chicago Manual of Style, I am just looking for validation. I'm usually fairly confident I know the answer, and I want CMS to back me up. To be my wing man, if you will. The problem is this: Every time I open that damn book, I end up leafing through it for at least fifteen to twenty minutes. And no, that time is not spent trying to find my answer. (That's what indexes are for, people.) That time is spent reading all the information that is on the pages surrounding my answer.
For example, yesterday I was looking up how to include a page number in a citation. Besides figuring that out, I also learned the following things:
- If a publisher's name has changed since publication, your citation should show the publisher's name as it appears on the copyright page.
- We should use the English spelling for the names of foreign cities.
- Page numbers are actually quite unnecessary in citations. (I like to include the page number for future reference.)
My point is, CMS has two chapters spanning 161 pages on the eighty million different ways there are to document a source. What in the world do you do if you aren't enthralled by all the minutiae, as I am?
Well, there's always the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide. This was actually put on the web by the powers-that-be over at the University of Chicago Press. It's a little longish, but nowhere near 161 pages. Because this is the official quick guide, I'd probably recommend this one before all the rest.
My alma mater separates examples of citations into those for the sciences and those for the arts, history, and literature. Pretty handy. Actually, I wish I knew about this when I was a student. (Though, to be honest, there was no 15th edition of CMS when I was a student.) Wait a minute, this was number one on my Google search. Does Google know I went to Ohio State?
Well done, Google, you've spooked me again with your creepy knowledge of my life.
Moving on, there's also the classic English usage desk references we've all had at some point in our lives. You know the one I'm talking about, it was probably a 5" x 8" or 6" x 9" trim size with a spiral binding? Yeah, that one. Usually they offer a section or chapter on citations that gives you all the flavors: MLA, Chicago, APA, AMA. These can be good initial sources; but just like I wouldn't buy a car from a catalog, I probably wouldn't take one of these "well-rounded" reference books as law. Remember, specialization is the key to accuracy.
Of course, it sometimes depends on your audience. I have been known to spend hours fine-tuning a biblography, only to find it was ultimately stetted by an author who preferred some obscure style manual. As a writer, you should always ask your editor/professor/client if there is a format they would prefer. Likewise, if you're an editor without a preference, ask your author if he/she has a preference. You may not think it matters to someone, but nobody likes to spend hours making changes that will ultimately be stetted.
Me? I always have a preference, which is why I like it when others don't.