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The Editorial Style Guide: A Project We Never Get To

August 14, 2019

Editorial Style Guide - Joe Diorio - Gotham Ghostwriters

This article has been reposted on this blog with permission from the author, Joe Diorio. Read more of his work and subscribe to his newsletter here.

I am frequently asked about creating an internal editorial style guide. It’s a request that frequently makes me cringe.

My employer once implemented an internal editorial style guide. It had detailed rules and standards for the written word, right down to how a facsimile cover sheet should be formatted. This should tell you two things: (1) Yes, I am talking about a fax machine; this was a long time ago, and (2) How one formats a fax cover sheet really isn’t an editorial judgment; alas, the bureaucracy must be cultivated before it is served.

A co-worker who took pride in his rebellious streak announced that, no matter what, he would NOT use the specified format for fax cover sheets. “It’s small-minded rule-making,” he proclaimed. (Well, page 15 of The Elements of Style, which says “choose a suitable design and hold to it,” differs with his proclamation. But I digress.)

I don’t know if Mr. Rebel followed through on his promise to be a formatting outlier. It really wasn’t important enough to check. And therein lies one of the problems with in-house editorial style guides. They are created and go into someone’s desk drawer or computer folder. Another more important problem, though, is since a reference tool like Strunk and White succinctly addresses one of the topics covered in an internal style guide, is the creation of said style guide necessary?

If you are ever tasked with creating an in-house editorial and/or writing style guide for your business, and your numbers are legion, please heed my advice:

1. Don’t.

2. If you must, then read on.

I suspect every company out there has an in-house rebel who, no matter what, isn’t going to follow the rules. And the grammar police (“To Serve and Correct”) don’t have universal enforcement jurisdiction.

Moreover, The Chicago Manual of Style is over 1,000 pages chock full of writing style advice for virtually everybody. Pair that with Strunk and White (Look through your desk. I’m betting there’s a copy in there somewhere.) and you have the crux of an internal editorial style guide. And I will further bet that your in-house rebel (come on, we all have one) will be happy to follow those style guides.

Yes, there are some things standard guides like Chicago, Strunk and White, and the Associated Press Stylebook don’t cover, like how your company name is spelled (using “and” rather than “&,” for example), how the company logo should look, where it should and shouldn’t appear, what colors comprise the company logo, and what typeface is used on the company website and in printed materials. Those are design questions that are important in helping differentiate a company. The editorial questions, however, are covered in Chicago, Strunk & White, and AP.

What about state abbreviations, you ask? In Chicago section 15.29 (spell out and use the two-letter abbreviation only when it is followed by the ZIP code). Nearby section 15.31 explains where punctuation goes in a city and state construction.

When using a computer keyboard, are you using the “shift” key or the “Shift” key? Chicago section 7.77 says it is the initial cap (second) one.

Got something you say is off topic, like bias free language? Sections 5.203 (“[…] language that is either sexist or suggestive of other conscious or subconscious prejudices […] distracts and may even offend readers […]”) through 5.206 (“A careful editor points out to authors any biased terms […]”) have you covered.

I could go on with a war of attrition over “does it or doesn’t it” cover your unique needs but let me instead offer a compromise.

The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, and throw in The Associated Press Stylebook are available through Amazon for about $70. Divide the amount of time you may spend creating an internal style guide into what you earn. I’m willing to bet it’s more than $70. Before you start building your style guide, then, suggest to the boss that you at least try buying the books for a small number of staff members and see if that suffices. IBM did that many years ago, giving employees in corporate communications their own copy of the AP Stylebook. It certainly was more effective than re-creating the wheel.

Let’s write carefully out there, people.

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