PubPro: A guide to style guides

Thought I’d leave the original title, given its definite uniqueness…

House Style and the Zombie Apocalypse: How a Poorly Thought-Out Style Guide Can Cost You Money

by Lara Kordic; presented by Iva Cheung

This presentation outlined the purpose and some characteristics of a well-thought-out house style guide and the dangers and common characteristics of a poor house style guide. Iva Cheung began by asking why we have house styles if we already have and use industry standard style manuals, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. One reason is to establish branding identity through consistent use of a certain style. Another reason is to go beyond what is covered in industry style manuals to meet audience expectations for specialized topics, such as measurement styles for cookbooks or capitalization preferences for certain organizations or communities. A third reason is to facilitate efficiency and workflow by establishing an editorial authority that helps your team work together and prevent anyone from having to second-guess their style decisions. Finally, a house style can outline the processes for tagging or formatting that may be particular to your organization.

Unfortunately, many house style guides that start with the best of intentions can fall prey to something that Iva calls “zombie rules.” These are rules that may have had merit in the past but that are no longer valid in the context of current language, technology or process. Sometimes zombie rules creep into a house style guide because of someone’s personal preferences or pet peeves and often they don’t make any sense. In fact, they may contradict industry standards, and enforcing them may cost the in-house editor and freelancer precious time as they communicate with each other about the issue. The more time spent talking about or correcting these so-called errors, the more money the company wastes. When zombie rules get out of hand, the house style guide can get unreasonably long. It is important to remember that the house style guide is there to supplement, not replace, industry-standard style guides; for most organizations, it should be about five to ten pages long. Adding your organization’s editorial philosophy or background can also make the document longer than it needs to be. Ultimately, your style guide should be audience-focused; the rules should serve the readers of your publication(s), not your personal whims. And the guide itself should serve your editors, not confuse them.

House style best practices include reviewing your house style regularly for validity, keeping policies and procedures separate, and putting your house style guide online for easy accessibility. Ideally, you should conduct house style audits or reviews when there are staffing changes, when your organization introduces a new process or new software or when a new edition of an industry manual comes out. A house style audit should be conducted by your in-house editorial team, plus someone external like a freelancer. When conducting the audit, go through each item and decide if it is necessary. If the item doesn’t match what’s in your industry manual, why not? If there’s no legitimate reason why not, remove it. If there is a legitimate reason, write a short note explaining why the deviation from the industry guide is there. Remember that every item should be justifiable and that “we’ve always done it this way” is not a valid justification. Finally, be sure to look for places where the style guide contradicts itself. People often add items to the style guide when something goes wrong in a project, but this isn’t necessarily the best place for those items. An effective house style guide should keep style points (e.g., serial comma use) and process points (e.g. formatting, tagging etc.) separate.

Putting your style guide online in a format that’s easy to revise and search, like a wiki, is a highly effective way to keep your guide current and accessible. You can organize it according to different stages in the editorial process so that copy editors and proofreaders can focus on their specific task rather than having to slog through the whole guide. Or you can use an industry style manual as a general guide to help you organize your house style guide.

Some organizations have a separate style guide for writers, which includes general rules but is not nearly as detailed as the style guide that is designed for editors. The level of style control an organization imposes at the writing stage depends on the type of publication being produced. In book publishing, it’s generally thought that writers should be allowed to write, and it’s up to the editor to impose the style after the thing is written. But in certain corporate environments, it may be useful to have writers follow an editorial style from the outset of a project or assignment.

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