A strategy for working with house style guides

Two style guide books

Two style guides with which I have grappled: the Cape Times Style Book is the 1974 edition, while Do It In Style dates from 1995.

The Associated Press has cast a very big stone among the editing pigeons: they have changed their style and now say that “more than” and “over” can both be used to indicate a greater numerical value. This probably passed most of the world by, but in the editing world it is a very big deal (read more on that from the inimitable Grammar Girl).

The reason editors have their knickers in knots is that AP is the custodian of the one of the most influential style guides on the planet. Many US publications use their guide, and when they change the rules it is taken very, very seriously.

What is house style, anyway?

People who don’t live in the world of editing and publishing may need a little background here. In a previous article, I explained it like this:

the set of rules that each publishing entity uses to keep things consistent. So the editor and senior staff and sub-editors will decide at some point to follow spelling as given in one brand of dictionary and they will, over time, make decisions about how to do things – which words are hyphenated, which are not; what is capitalised, what is not; which words are written as one word, and which are written as two. Generally a senior staffer, or staffers, will be the keepers of style – they will keep a list of style rules, and they will make decisions as questions arise.

In that article, I argued that there can be too much emphasis on house style, at the expense of focussing on things that matter to readers. I still believe that – readers care more about factual accuracy and clear thinking than they do about the use of “more than” and “over”.

But what if you are working somewhere where house style is important?

In that case, it is important to respect that requirement of the job (and that applies to writers as much as it does to copy editors).

At the moment, I do editing for one online publication and proofread for a publishing house, and I do occasional work for other publishers too. That means that I need to apply several different guides, sometimes in the course of one day, or over a week. I have had to come up with a strategy for dealing with differing styles. And I think it would work whether you need to work with one, or with many.

Here’s my strategy

Don’t try to learn all the nooks and crannies of every single style guide. Instead, understand that house style guides tend to cover certain themes – they will all, for instance, have a set of rules about how to deal with numbers. What that means is that you can edit generically, and apply specific rules as you go. When you hit an area of text that is typically governed by a style guide, you look up the relevant rule and apply it.

Here’s an example:

Take this bit of text, from a community newspaper in Cape Town:

He has been on the boards of various organisations, including the South African Crohn’s Disease Association; Sunfield Homes for Mentally Handicapped; the National Council of YMCA in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape; Ons Plek Projects Committee and St Luke’s Hospice.

It contains a list, in this case handled all in one sentence, and separated by semi-colons. If you are an experienced style guide practitioner, you will know that lists are handled differently from publication to publication. So as your eye goes over the list, you think what is Publication X’s style for lists? You look up the list part of their guide and discover that they say lists must have each item on a new line, and no semi-colons – rather use commas, and have the “and” at the end of the second last item, and precede the list with a colon. So you edit the list to look like this:

He has been on the boards of various organisations, including:

the South African Crohn’s Disease Association,

Sunfield Homes for Mentally Handicapped,

the National Council of YMCA in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape,

Ons Plek Projects Committee and

St Luke’s Hospice.

Even if this way to do lists is not simple, this way of working does simplify the process of working with a style guide!

Style guide themes

Each time I have to get a new style guide under my belt, I know that I will be looking in these broad areas for that publication’s rules:

  • Numbers (R1-million or R1 million?)
  • Dates and times (July 18, or 18 July?)
  • Places (must you name everything, or can you assume the reader knows where you are geographically?)
  • Abbreviations (US or United States at first mention?)
  • Honorifics (Mr, or not?)
  • Punctuation (especially quote marks)
  • Capitalisation (Cabinet or cabinet)

There are other, more detailed areas covered by style guides. The only way to get your head round them is to skim the guide before you start editing, so you know what to look out for as you go. Add that to the broad-strokes approach outlined above, and you are on the way to becoming a style guide ninja.

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Main picture: Tom Hermans on Unsplash

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