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Style Guides:
Yet Another Minefield for Writers and Editors

Rosemary Shipton

In discussions about clients, one editor recounts the story of a textbook author with a passion for commas. While he did not comment on most changes, he thought nothing of complaining long and loud and late at night about changes to a comma. This difference of opinion over a comma is one example of the "style wars" that may erupt between clients and editors or writers.

The term "style" covers all those technical aspects of language where there is a choice, such as numbers, dates, abbreviations, capitalization, distinctive treatment of words, notes and bibliography, and a few points of spelling and punctuation. The pitfalls of variations mean that editors and writers need to be familiar with the options or at least with resources for checking out specifics.

As well, publications and clients are increasingly asking writers and editors to follow a particular editorial style. Two popular guides, the Chicago Manual of Style and New York Public Library Writer's Guide to Style and Usage, are descriptive in approach and outline general principles and styles among which an editor can choose. In numbers, for example, they outline two basic systems: editors can write out one to nine and use figures for everything specific over 10, or they can write out one to ninety-nine, and use figures for everything specific over 100.

If writers or editors can pick a style to follow, their key for success is choose, then be consistent.

Style rules

Many editors and writers do not realize that they may be asked to follow other style guides that are prescriptive in approach. These guides set out one way to handle these questions of style and to present many other elements, such as headings, quotations, lists, tables, and charts.

The most common of these style guides are the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, published by the Modern Languages Association and used mainly by writers of literary criticism; the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, used extensively by publishers of books and journals in the social sciences and in some branches of health and engineering; Scientific Style and Format: The CBE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, prepared by the Council of Biology Editors and used by publishers of books and journals in the soft and hard sciences and the other branches of health and engineering; the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation, published by Carswell and used by writers of legal texts; and the Canadian Press Stylebook, used by the majority of Canadian newspapers and magazines.

What makes these guides attractive to publishers is their inflexibility: authors are obliged to present their manuscripts exactly as prescribed in the stylebook, and that really cuts down the time publishers have to spend on copy editing. No wonder so many of these authors are hiring editors to fine tune their manuscripts before they present them to the publishers.

In addition to these published guides, many clients develop their own style guides, and editors are asked to follow these rules as they edit. To use the example of numbers again, one children's book publisher in Toronto writes out one to 10, and switches to figures only at 11*presumably because children count on all 10 of their little fingers! These house guides may be brief, picking out only a few points of style in a couple of pages; others are comprehensive, as in the detailed guide prepared by the Canadian Tax Foundation.

Editors may be asked to prepare customized style guides for large projects that have several writers and editors working on them, such as a major reference publication or a royal commission report. Editors may also be asked to prepare a basic guide for an ongoing series, such as a journal, newsletter, or a line of books, and to update the guide as needed.

Professional editors and writers, then, are expected not only to be able to follow a style guide implicitly, but to understand the principles behind editorial style and to create a workable guide on demand. Amid all these variations, the descriptive Chicago and New York are still the basis of editorial style, but there are good reasons why the different prescriptive guides are well suited to their particular kinds of texts. The challenge for editors is to get their heads around them all.

Rosemary Shipton, an experienced editor and a member of the Toronto branch of the Editors' Association of Canada, teaches The Ultimate Style Book Guide seminar for the Toronto branch and coordinates the Publishing Program at Ryerson. This article, with a few differences, first appeared in the October 1999 issue of Active Voice/La voix active, the national newsletter of the Editors' Association of Canada/Association canadienne des rédacteurs-révisers. Used with permission.

Published in Sources, Number 45, Winter 2000.


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