How to absorb any editorial style guide

One page, ten pages, fifty pages or a whole published book – an editorial style guide can initially seem like an overwhelming onslaught of information that you won’t ever fully grasp. Never mind herding cats, you might feel like you have a veritable zoo of style points all clamouring for attention – and a client, author or manager poised to pounce if you neglect even one of them.

But, with experience, you can catalogue and tame your menagerie of minutiae. This post offers a simple methodology to help you systematically absorb a new style guide and become versatile at transitioning between different ones.

Read on to find out how you can label your ladybirds, classify your caterpillars, balance your badgers and get assertive with your alligators.

But first, let’s get some key terminology pinned down.

Editorial style guide vs editorial style sheet

It’s important to understand that there is a distinction between editorial style guides and editorial style sheets:

  • An editorial style guide is a document of standing instructions that is not tailored to any specific project. Hart’s Rules, published by Oxford University Press, is a major example that is available to buy commercially. Another example is the free Guardian and Observer Style Guide. However, many publishers, charities and businesses have their own style guides, which they often send to their editors and proofreaders in PDF form. Editorial style guides can vary in length from a page to a hefty book.
  • An editorial style sheet is a (usually) short document that is created by an editor or proofreader to summarise the key editorial principles followed in a specific project. It may draw upon or repeat content from an editorial style guide but will tailor that information to the project.

For example, if I’m asked to follow the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) – a style guide – my style sheet will start by stating the CMOS edition I’ve used. I will then list all the fundamental style points I’ve taken from CMOS and any exceptions. Lastly, I will create a project-specific list of words and phrases.

Should you always repeat content from the style guide in the style sheet?

Some editors will simply state the style guide they’ve followed and then list the project’s words and phrases (i.e. they miss out the style points they’ve taken from the style sheet). However, I prefer to repeat all the major principles of the style guide I’m using – including use of commas, heading capitalisation, numerals, etc. I do this for two reasons: (1) because many style guides allow different options and (2) because I often don’t know who will be using my style sheet later on in the project, so I like to make sure it will be accessible to people of any level of editorial expertise.

The menagerie of an editorial style guide

When I first started working as an editor around 15 years ago, even the simplest editorial style guide would feel intimidating. But, over time, I’ve become more and more experienced to the point that I can pick up most new style guides pretty quickly.

The trick is categorisation. As I read through a new style guide, I’ll mentally categorise each point I encounter into one of the following four categories.

Note that my categories are suitable for a UK habitat. Feel free to change the species to suit a habitat of your choice.

1. Ladybirds

Ladybirds are widespread, predictable and docile. These are styles that you implement anyway and barely need to think about. An example for me is UK versus US spelling – once I know which a client wants, it’s easy for me to implement it.

2. Caterpillars

Like ladybirds, caterpillars are widespread and usually docile; however, they are more varietous and some types can be nasty. These are points that are fairly routine but that you will need to make a conscious effort to implement. For example, when I’m editing citations, I will take careful note of how the style guide requires the page numbers of quotations to be styled: After commas? After colons? With or without ‘pp’? With or without a full stop after ‘pp’? And so on.

3. Badgers

Badgers are significantly more unusual, and potentially dangerous if not approached carefully. These are points that you will need to keep front of mind as you edit to ensure you deal with them properly. For me, an example might be a requirement to copyedit sentences to use single clauses wherever possible (e.g. for a Key Stage 3 textbook). Although I would not generally find the requirement itself tricky, I would need to ensure I didn’t forget about it – especially if my previous project had involved editing a text with a more advanced reading level (such as a white paper or an academic book).

4. Alligators

Alligators are extremely rare and are typically found only in specialist projects or unusual circumstances. They require special treatment and potentially extra training to handle safely. These are style points (or perhaps technical requirements) that are either entirely new to you or significantly different from what you’re used to doing. There is a danger that you will routinely forget to implement them or make a mess of the manuscript in doing so. Alligators are fairly rare for me nowadays, but I did encounter one in a recent project that had highly unusual digital cross-referencing requirements. These required me to step back, take some time to fully understand how to achieve what the client wanted, and then make a plan for how to consistently and accurately implement the system I’d designed.

Sometimes, an alligator is so formidable that it means the editor or proofreader should reject the project in the first place (and perhaps undertake training if they’d like to be able to work with this particular type of alligator in the future).

Tip for writers of style guides

When you’re writing a style guide for your organisation, if you know that any of your style points are likely to be badgers or alligators for a significant proportion of your editors and proofreaders, send up fireworks about them. For example, one method I use is to list the tricky items in an email or the brief. I might also use special formatting (such as a coloured box) for points that might trip editors or proofreaders up. In my experience, warnings of this kind greatly reduce slips and misunderstandings.

What to do with your categorisation

Each person’s categorisation will be different, depending on their level of experience and how much the editorial style guide departs from their usual editing fare. For example, a ladybird for an editor or proofreader who regularly works on website content might be an alligator to an editor who is new to this field. And pretty much everything will be an alligator to a new editor or proofreader.

The point is that at the end of the categorisation process, you’ll have a checklist of all the different style points and the beginnings of a plan for implementing them.

Manuscript first or style guide first?

I should clarify that I’m not suggesting you should start your first project in CMOS style (for example) by reading every single one of its zillions of sections. That would clearly be ridiculous. For a smaller style guide, you might read the entire thing as you go through your process of categorisation. For a longer style guide, it can help to set up your own template style sheet (I wrote about how to do this here) and use it as a guide to look up each basic style point in the style guide. You can then look up other more specific points as style questions arise during the edit.

The next stage is to actually look at the manuscript and work out how you’re going to implement each style point, especially the badgers and alligators. Note that at this stage you might also add to or change your categorisation slightly, depending on what the author has done. For example, let’s say you originally classified the style guide’s edict to use italics for painting titles as a caterpillar. However, your author mentions both paintings and exhibitions and it’s not initially clear which is which. In this case, you might bump this point up to a badger (and query your client as to how to style exhibitions if this isn’t in the style guide).

Wherever possible, I like to tackle the alligators first, so I know they’re out of the way. However, it can be dangerous to approach an alligator before you fully understand its habits, so often I’ll wait until I’m deeper into the text and can be confident my plan will work.

Macros and wildcard find and replace can be excellent ways of dealing with any of the categories of your menagerie, and I use them liberally. But they do rely on there being some sort of textual pattern that is predictable and thus can be fixed in a regimented way. In many cases (such as my example above of single-clause sentences), you just have to be on the lookout from paragraph to paragraph. However, by dealing with as many as possible of your beasties early on, you’ll have freed up your brain to focus on those tricker cases.

Using an editorial style guide with experience

As time goes on, you’ll probably find that the categorisation method becomes quicker and quicker to implement. I’ve found that many style points have now settled into a kind of map of options in my head, so that the various types of ladybird and caterpillar feel like old and familiar friends where I only need to remember which one I’m meeting for coffee on a particular day. I don’t need to consciously think about my friend’s name or their job or what’s going on in their life – I just know and can therefore respond to the friend appropriately.

(I also sometimes find myself talking to commas, citations and such in my head, Stanley Tucci style, saying ‘We’re doing this for you… and this for you…’ Anyone else do that? Just me? OK then…)

The more experienced you become, the less formidable a style guide seems – even the giant ones of the likes of CMOS. And the more easily you become able to transition between them too.

I’d love to know in the comments if you find this methodology useful – and let me know which beasties you picked too!

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.

4 Comments

  1. Sue Littleford on July 12, 2022 at 11:39 am

    Excellent piece, Hazel! On my style sheets I, too, list the basics (language, serial commas or no, numbers [elision, treatment of centuries, where to spell out to], double or single quote marks and all that gubbins), then I add what I’m doing for that book, and I have a section for author preferences (where they’re allowed and sometimes where I’ve had to override them). I round it off with the way references are handled, using examples from that book, and a list of special sorts. I keep my word list separate for my own convenience. I’ve never categorised all the elements the way you have – I’m going to have a think about that and maybe develop my own bestiary! (And now I’ve got ‘Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!’ running through my head…) Thanks for writing this 🙂

    • Hazel Bird on July 12, 2022 at 12:26 pm

      So glad you found the post helpful, Sue! I like your idea of having a specific section for author preferences. I do note them throughout my style sheet but can definitely see there would be projects where making them more prominent could help to ensure they don’t get overridden later in the process. Ooh I like the idea of movie-themed bestiaries – the winged monkeys could make a good substitute for badgers!

  2. Sally Asnicar on July 15, 2022 at 8:54 am

    I love this article, Hazel. For the majority of clients, their response to my question ‘Do you have a style guide?’ is met with a blank stare (at least, that’s how I picture them looking at my email when I ask them). It’s usually a surprise when they reply ‘Yes, we do’. I won’t say pleasant because sometimes what I am sent bears no resemblance to the style that’s been used in the project I’m to edit or proofread. It’s always a pleasure when I get a very, very rare duck. That is, ducks are in a row and the style guide is clear and helpful, and actually correlates with what I’ve been sent to edit.

    • Hazel Bird on July 15, 2022 at 9:10 am

      I agree, Sally – there’s a whole other layer of difficulty when the style guide doesn’t correlate with what the text contains. That happens for me quite a bit too. Each case has to be treated individually of course, but in such cases I’ll usually ask for specific confirmation from the client about implementing badgers and alligators, to be sure they feel it’s worth the extra effort of doing so. So many times, I’ve raised such a query with a client and been told just to ‘follow author style’ in that particular instance. But for me that makes the categorisation all the more worthwhile, as it becomes a kind of triaging process that helps me to communicate with the client about their priorities for the edit.

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