Editing Course: A Matter of Style

An author’s style can be many things. It can be flowery with long descriptions, which slows the pace down. It can be concise and sharp, which speeds the pace up. The author can use a formal, casual or technical tone. They can write in first, second or third person. And then there’s present or past tense. The voice can be personal or distant. The manuscript could be traditional, classic or modern. All these things contribute to the author’s style and will determine readership.

An editor must look at the author’s style and determine if it is right for the story and if it is right for the publishing house.

Organisations also have their own style. Some may prefer formal looking documents while others will go for casual documents. The style chosen is often the best choice for their needs and what they feel their readers will expect.

No matter what the business, style is a matter of preference.

It is important not to confuse “style” with “sense”. Some writers find it difficult to put words on paper. What they see in their mind makes sense, but the written version doesn’t. The substantive editor will find these troublesome spots and will help the author clarify them.

The copyeditor and proofreader may not have to make sense of something. However, if they find something that doesn’t make sense then they should mark it up by circling the text and placing a question mark (?) in the margin. This alerts the person reviewing the work after them that the text should be checked for sense.

House Style

As already mentioned, style is a matter of preference. It will change from publishing house to publishing house and organisation to organisation.

For example, some organisations spell “copyeditor” as one word, some hyphenate it as “copy-editor” and some spell it as two words, “copy editor”. Some dictionaries spell it as one word, some as two.

Style is not limited to spelling. Other aspects such as capitalisation, punctuation and layout must also be considered.

The internet has not helped. As people have access to more and more information, language has become blurred. The definitions between Australian, British and American English is confusing as they overlap and spell checkers insist on changing “s” to “z” when we know “s” is correct but find ourselves accepting “z” as an alternative.

When editing it is important to know and accept the organisation’s house style. If they prefer “z” to “s” then you do not attempt to change it. In fact, if you do change it the organisation could be offended! What you consider to be right is not right if it goes against the house style for the organisation. For this reason an editor/proofreader must know the preferred style for their clients and, more importantly, must have a system in place to keep track of all the styles.

Style Manuals

In Australia, there is a style manual called Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers which was prepared for use by the Government. This style manual has been adopted by many publishing houses and rejected by a number of others. It is not uncommon for some organisations to refer to the guide but they do not adopt all the styles. It is a house choice.

As a general tip, if the style guide clashes with the Macquarie Dictionary, an editor would follow the dictionary first as it is more widely accepted. However, if your client is a government department then you would follow the style guide first.

Style Guides

If the company or person you are working for has an in-house style then you must know what it is before you start editing their work.

Style Sheets

A style sheet is a list setting out the conventions to follow when editing a document or publication. They can change depending on the document and can be used in conjunction with a style guide. They may include preferred proofreading marks, a list of abbreviations and how they prefer them set out and a list of preferred word spellings.

Always ask a new client if they have a style sheet or word list available. If they don’t, start one of your own so that you know what they prefer the next time they give you something to edit.

It is also advisable to set up your own personal style guide for words and phrases you normally have trouble with.

Remember, when it comes to style, the client is always right.

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