Sunday, November 16, 2008

Publisher's Style Guides

I once worked in a medium-sized publishing and speaking organisation where I was handed the task of overseeing the style guide when its former overseer left. This organisation was one that took its duty to provide correct and consistent copy very seriously, even though it wasn't a university nor a member of the media. While I was there I learned about some of the history for this organisation's style guide, the reasoning behind many of the rules, and the point at which the rules could be bent or broken.

To those who have never written or edited much, the subtle nuances between one way of formatting something and another go largely un-noticed. And, to the educationally-challenged, grammar and punctuation are among the words you were supposed to learn in English, but didn't really pay much attention to. But to those of us who have worked with style guides and those who profess to love the craft of writing (and/or editing), a style guide is a refuge.

A style guide is a place to turn when you're not familiar with an organisation's way of doing a particular kind of thing with text. One that is well put together will actually save time, not create work, for its users. To do this well and 'properly' takes time, and the best style guides are ones that are continually analysed and updated to keep pace with the changing nature of communication, formatting and language.

The history of a style guide will usually be based on one or another of the existing style manuals that are out there. For example:

And different organisations will have different needs when it comes to typesetting, writing and editing. In the case of the place I worked, the style guide had been nutted out over a period of many years and factored in the needs and preferences of readers in Australia and the USA. The cooperation and compromise required for this was impressive, but it left the organisation with a somewhat clunky and irrelevant style guide. In addition, people were very busy and were unwilling to keep visiting the style guide to update it. Decisions that had been made decades ago were easier to simply maintain, than question. New people with knowledge only of modern trends in writing and editing were quickly put in their place.

There were some rules that were followed to pad out articles and books (eg. double-spaces after periods) and others to save space (eg. using single quote marks instead of double). Certain trends refused to budge even after a major transition to web-based content (which for those of you who don't know makes the use of double-spaces after periods painful at best). As time went by, management realised the need for different rules depending on the medium. So in print, the Style Guide still had full effect (double-spaces after periods, single (CURLY) quote marks) but web content was allowed to have single-spaces after periods and subtitles on DVDs were allowed to have double, straight quote marks for clarity. There were different rules for different countries (eg. use of .org for UK, Europe, Canada and the USA, but .com for Australia, NZ and others. Dr. with a dot for the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA, but no dot for Australia, NZ and others).

The flexibility was nice for those people who wanted their way, but I remember thinking if we're going to allow this (i.e. if we don't mind too badly one way or the other) why not change it for everybody to make the style guide more practical and useful for writers, editors and graphic designers? Perhaps not with every rule-bending option, but some of them.

The larger a style guide gets, the less likely people are to follow it. It becomes too complicated and too difficult to 'wade through'. Most people in an organisation tend not to care. It falls to those with the editing responsibility to 'fix' everyone else's oversights. Even graphic designers are forced to become experts at the style guide to avoid last minute changes from the final sign-off editor. And few graphic designers are good at editing the work they've just spent four hours laying out.

But that's a topic for another blog.

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