Let’s talk about style. While I love 80s power dressing or the glamour of old Hollywood, I’m not talking Dynasty, Marilyn Monroe or Steve McQueen. This is editorial style. But it’s just as important!
One of the first questions we ask a client when we’re embarking on a relationship, or starting a new project, is ‘Do you have a style guide?’ Often they do, and that’s great. Many of our clients have been in the business of communication for years, and it’s our job to implement their own agreed house style by following their style guide. But sometimes we’re met with entirely blank faces, or comments like ‘Do you mean, um, what font we want to use?’
Editorial style isn’t about the look and feel of the final page, which is actually the design or formatting. It is about the words on the page and the way you choose to present them – let’s call them editorial preferences. Collect all your editorial preferences across a wide range of issues into a single place, and you have yourself a style guide. Clients who are producing multiple publications, or a single large report, really need a style guide – it’s the key to implementing a consistent approach across the board.
So, what’s in a style guide?
A style guide can include some or all of the following editorial preferences and decisions.
- Do you want to follow Oxford and go with -ize spellings for words like organization, or do you consider that a strange mid-Atlantic bowdlerisation?
- Are you in fact writing for an American market, and would like to use US spelling throughout?
- Do you have a favourite dictionary? (Ours is Oxford, but with a few provisos!)
- Do you like to co-ordinate or coordinate your projects?
- Double or single quote marks throughout? Or perhaps you like to use a different style for ‘scare’ quotes and direct quotations.
- The dreaded serial comma – Oxford has a lot to answer for on that front – but some clients love to eat apples, pears, and kiwis.
- Do you like a spaced en dash – like this – to separate out a phrase—or do you prefer the em dash? (It’s the typographical size of the dash, in case you’re wondering – one single ‘n’ or ‘m’ in the typeface you’re using!)
- How do you like your ellipses in the morning? We would recommend … but plenty of clients like to close them up…or tail off… at the end. And sometimes it depends on context!
Nuts and bolts
- Numbers – as it turns out, it’s not as simple as 1,2,3. Fiction tends to write out everything out in full up to ninety-nine or even one hundred. Some data-driven reports will use numerals for everything, but most of our work involves this question: ‘one to nine or one to ten’? Which means, do we start using numerals at ‘10’ or ‘11’ essentially. But there are other questions: per cent or %; 1,000 or 1000; 1 million or one million?
- Dates – 1st November or 1 November or even November 1? 2022–3, 2022–23 or 2022–2023?
- Capitalisation – is Rishi Sunak the prime minister or the Prime Minister?
- Cross-references style – do you have Chapters or chapters?
- And so on!
- Writing guidelines – such as Plain English, tone of voice, preference over formal or informal styles, including third person vs first person, or should the whole thing be directly speaking to the reader as ‘you’?
- Naming conventions for use when referring to people – James Smith, Mr James Smith or Mr Smith?
- Endnotes versus footnotes?
- Do you want to number your paragraphs or your heading levels or both?
- What kind of referencing style do you prefer – Harvard, Vancouver or something else entirely?
- When is it ok to use abbreviations and when do you want to give terms in full?
- When might you want to display quotations and what is the preferred format for these?
- Will there be boxes, figures, tables – and do you have any special instructions for them?
- Preferred terminology for particular contexts
- Language to avoid in sensitive contexts
- Tenses to use for particular sections
- Boilerplate text that must always be included
- List of specific words and terms in frequent use
- List of abbreviations
Everything but the kitchen sink
Editorial style guides can really include whatever it is that you want to ensure is consistently applied!
We work with some clients who include extensive Appendices, even down to a list of every country in the world to make sure they are always named correctly in different contexts. (In case you didn’t know, the United Nations would refer to the UK as ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in all contexts except tables! Sensibly, one UN body we do a lot of work with – UNICEF – has tempered this instruction in their style guide with a footnote allowing the use of the more manageable ‘United Kingdom’ everywhere except first mention.)
Some projects are very complicated, and the style guide might include a list of names, to ensure that everyone in the report is always referred to by the correct name and title, as well as the correct rank or job title according to the context.
At Accuracy Matters, we are expert in creating style guides from scratch. But even then – or if we’re working with a pre-existing client style guide – we still find that, as we get into the copyediting or proofreading on a particular project, there’s always more to add. On most of our projects, we’ll use a shared online style guide – for additional notes and ongoing comments. New terms crop up with odd capitalisation, a product suddenly changes its name, a new Finance Director hates en dashes, there’s an unusual but essential hyphen in a company’s mission statement or they absolutely MUST CAPITALISE THEIR ‘VALUES’…
What are the benefits of an editorial style guide?
With a style guide, clients, writers, editors and proofreaders will all find their jobs are made a whole lot easier! Using a style guide means that:
- All the writers involved in your project can see how you would like them to write.
- All the different copyeditors and proofreaders that work on your projects will have clear guidelines to follow.
- All your reports will have a consistent and professional feel.
- If we need to divide up larger projects – or those with tight deadlines – across a team, we know we can still ensure a consistent approach across a project.
- There is a place to list all client preferences, so nothing gets missed – even as projects progress.
- There is a record of all editorial decisions – which avoids debates at a later stage!
- The Lead Editor can say ‘It’s in the style guide!’
Essentially, a style guide is a repository for all the finer details about a particular project, and a way of ensuring a professional publication for each and every project we work on.