Editing Tips: Style Guides

When consistency is not a foolish hobgoblin

Mr. Mxyzptlk

One of Superman’s archvillains was an interdimensional imp named Mr. Mxyzptlk. I’m sure after a while, the writers at DC Comics memorized the spelling, but when he was first introduced, I’m sure they had it written down and available to consult frequently.

In your own writing, you probably have less difficult things to remember. Perhaps you have a character named Runs-with-fire. Or is it Runs-with-Fire, or Runs-With-Fire, or RunsWithFire? Do you write healthcare or health care? Do you use an asterisk or a dingbat to divide sections of a chapter?

Ideally, all of these issues are noted in a style guide your copy editor creates when he or she starts to read your manuscript. But there is no rule that you have to wait for a professional copy editor to make your prose more consistent.

I’ve been a professional editor since 1984, so before I start to write something, I create a style guide. If there are characters, I write a little bio for each of them with their stats (age, racial background, hair color, where they’ve lived, arrest record, etc.) and some details about how they speak, act, and react. If it takes place in another time or a locale I’ve never lived in, I take the time to research it or imagine plausible details about it.

As I go along with the writing, I keep track of decisions I’ve made. My style guide for things I write is perhaps a bit shorter than yours, because I’ve memorized a lot of the Chicago Manual of Style, and between that and Webster’s dictionary, my list of unique or broken rules is not too extensive most of the time. (Though for one novel, I had to create a language, so the dictionary was over a dozen pages long.)

But some of the rest of you may want to note if you’re using British (grey, colour, analyse) or American spellings (gray, color, analyze). You may want to decide if you’re going to ever put a comma before the word and. (Please do!) Established style guides have long sections just about how to treat abbreviations, the style of different levels of headlines and subheads, when to break something out into a block quote, on which side of a quotation mark you put other punctuation, when to use a dialog tag, and what to capitalize. If you work in trade book publishing, the Chicago Manual is the standard, but if you work in journalism, or if you write for doctors or psychologists, you may need to refer to other standards:

Links to various style guides:

The Chicago Manual of Style

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law

The AMA Manual of Style

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

MLA Handbook

A consistent style in your writing makes you seem more professional, and it is less confusing to your readers.

This is the first of a series of blog posts on editing tips. Check back next week for “Editing Tips: Version Control.”

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