How Style Guides Elevate Writers' Work
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Whether you write blog posts or have a book series in your plans, one of the benefits of having a copyeditor (and often a proofreader) review your work is their ability to whip the document’s style into shape. Editors like me who have undergone training to have a standard that guides their approach to style can best help you tackle issues related to ensuring this overarching factor remains consistent and on target to meet audience needs.
The Elements of Style
But what is style, you may ask first? Just as with explaining an author’s voice, the answer is complex. The style of a manuscript relates to the particular approach a writer (and an editor hired to consider style and other factors) uses to addressing:
larger issues such as the level of language throughout a piece (that is, are you writing for an academic or niche audience where words like “heterotrophic” will be understood, or does the difficulty of the word choices, and the depth of explanations of concepts, need to be tailored to the average Jane and Joe?)
paragraph-level (or whole-document) choices, such as using many words that have a heavy sound to them (like “horror,” “moan” and “gray”), or using lots of short sentences for a fast-paced section
grammatical details within sentences, such as whether you stick with having all commas being present in a series (aka the Oxford comma in “Four pigeons, five penguins, and a pike”), whether you capitalize the first word in a complete sentence that follows a colon, whether you use “gray” or “grey” to spell the color, and how you treat abbreviations and acronyms
Below I recap the best practices editors use and the range of style guides that exist, as well as when it’s most important to codify your content by developing a style guide or asking for that from editors.
Reference Style Guides
Editors often refer to manuals called style guides that help them create consistency in your content’s style, in part so readers don’t peg you as unprofessional if they see quotes handled differently in just one section of your manuscript or other discrepancies. For instance, many fiction and non-fiction books (and some academic texts) are styled based on how the Chicago Manual of Style, which suggests grammatical and other rules to follow.
Professions like law, computer sciences, medicine and the behavioral/social sciences all have their own style guides, as do newspapers (The Associated Press Stylebook in the U.S., which is also used for some blogs). Note that style guides vary by country, given factors such as the different punctuation and spelling choices used in British, Canadian and American English.
The publishing houses I’ve worked with have their own style guides for editors and proofreaders to follow, often in tandem with the Chicago Manual (referred to as CMOS by many). Major guides will also indicate a particular dictionary to refer to for addressing word spelling and hyphenation issues the main guide doesn’t cover. In addition, specialty guides may be referred to by your editor on an as-need basis, such as a medical style guide if you regularly pepper drug names into a crime novel.
Be sure to tell an editor what genre or field your manuscript is in as part of reaching out for professional editing. If they say they’re familiar with the appropriate style guide, ask how regularly they have worked with it. If they don’t have a lot of experience, that doesn’t mean to pass on them when they meet other criteria that matter; however, editors tend to be more efficient at making corrections when they’re more familiar with a style guide.
Personalized Style Guides
In some cases, you might benefit from having an editor develop a guide just for you. That’s especially true if you plan to publish a book series, or you continually develop Web content, blogs and such about a niche subject where you regularly use things like mathematical symbols or insider vocabulary. A style guide can become especially helpful then for retaining consistency in how information is presented. For instance, I've developed a guide for a three-part memoir of a self-published author in which the names of spiritual leaders and certain spiritual concepts needed to be codified, and for the annual report of a geological sciences unit of a university.
Having a style guide saves you time in general when working on the next stage of content. A guide can remind you how to punctuate dates mid-sentence, whether to hyphenate a noun like “know-how," and that you should use “Bodine” for the spelling of a certain character’s last name. In the end, you see, much of what you write is a matter of style.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez