Mind Your Style Sheet

I once took a class on book editing, and one of our assignments was to copyedit a section of a manuscript. When the instructor returned my graded assignment, she included the following comment: “I wish you had made more use of the style sheet.”

She was right—I hadn’t made good use of the style sheet, and that was because I didn’t fully understand what style sheets were or how best to use them. I knew the style sheet was a document where I was supposed to record all the editorial decisions I made while copyediting the manuscript, but I was fuzzy on the details.

It wasn’t until I started copyediting manuscripts for Ooligan that I really grasped the concept of the style sheet. I learned that while resources like CMOS, Merriam-Webster, and house style guides are extremely useful when it comes to general rules, there are always going to be exceptions. Every manuscript is different—perhaps you’re working on a book that uses terminology not found in Merriam-Webster, or perhaps the author has some strong stylistic preferences that differ from the publisher’s house style guidelines—and the copyeditor is going to have to make decisions. When this happens, these decisions need to be recorded in the manuscript’s individualized style sheet to ensure consistency.

Imagine this scenario: You’re copyediting a manuscript, and you notice that the author has used the word alright. You suspect that the correct spelling is all right, but when you look it up in Merriam-Webster, you find that both forms are acceptable. Now you have a decision to make. You search the manuscript and find that alright occurs five times, while all right occurs twice. Since the author has shown a slight preference for alright, you decide to go with that spelling. You then turn to the “word list” section of your style sheet, and under “A” (because style sheet entries should always be alphabetized), you type, “alright (not all right).” Now, as you continue the copyedit, every time you run into an alright or an all right, you can refer back to the style sheet to remind yourself of your decision. When you’ve completed this pass, you can search the manuscript for every term on the list to ensure that they’re all being treated consistently. If you didn’t keep a style sheet, maintaining consistency would be much harder.

In addition to word lists, style sheets also include rules for things like punctuation, the use of italics, and the treatment of numbers. For example, a style sheet might specify that all internal thoughts should be expressed in italics. Style sheets for fiction manuscripts should include lists of character names to ensure consistent spelling, and editors should also make note of some distinguishing features for each character. If you note that Billy is described as having blue eyes on page 4, then you’ll notice something is amiss when he suddenly has brown eyes on page 203.

It can be tricky to figure out what to put in a style sheet and what to leave out. You obviously don’t need to list every single rule in CMOS or make an entry for every typo. But what should you include? As Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz observe in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, it depends on the editor. On page 59 of the recently published fourth edition, they write, “Instead of listing every individual change and decision, experienced copyeditors reduce the work of recordkeeping by simply noting the style followed in certain well-defined categories (e.g., ‘Chicago numbers style throughout’) and then just recording exceptions.… But novice copyeditors should err on the side of overdocumentation until they master the intricacies of various editorial styles.” Include whatever you think might be helpful to you, your managing editor, and the author (who should receive a copy of the style sheet alongside the copyedited manuscript).

Though style sheets can seem confusing at first, they are among the most important tools at a copyeditor’s disposal. As long as you keep your style sheet organized and record all of your decisions related to mechanics and style, you should be all right. (Or is it alright? Better check the style sheet.)

Styles Clash

I began working as an editor for the Portland State Vanguard, PSU’s student-run newspaper, over the summer, and while there are a variety of similarities between editing books and newspapers, the steepest learning curve I encountered was in the differences in house editing styles.

It might sound odd if you’re not already an editor, but the differences in style guides at publishing houses can be a tedious affair if you’re not at least a bit fluent in the main English-language house styles.

Like most book publishing companies in the US, Ooligan Press mostly adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style when it comes to editing decisions. Grammar, punctuation, diction, and more: all of these details are often decided by whatever the most updated of CMOS states. At the Vanguard, though, we use a variation of AP Style, similar to what most national papers often use.

One major difference between Chicago and AP is how numbers and number-centric icons are rendered. For example, on actual numbers themselves: In Chicago style, the style I “grew up” with, all numbers below one hundred are written out. However, in AP Style, all digits (0–9) and the number ten (10) are written out, while anything higher than those would be written in their numeral form.

LeBron James scored ninety-three points last night. (Chicago)

LeBron James scored 93 points last night. (AP)

Another instance that tripped up a neophyte editor like myself was the assortment of differences between how ellipses and em dashes are rendered in each respective style. AP Style often calls for one space followed by three consecutive periods and another space, as opposed to a space between all periods in Chicago style. This difference is best understood with an example:

I’m sleepy . . . but ready to hit the road. (Chicago)

I’m sleepy … but ready to hit the road. (AP)

To compound this editorial burden, the Vanguard closes spaces before and after words.

I’m sleepy…but ready to hit the road. (Vanguard house style)

I can tell you firsthand that the reason for these decisions usually has to do with space on a page; there simply isn’t enough room for all of the content sometimes. What this taught me was to closely examine whatever medium you’re working in as an editor. Is what you’re editing going to be read on large newsprint with small text? Will it be published online or in print, or both? Understanding why publishing houses choose to customize their style guides often depends on what exactly the publisher plans to print.

Titles in print are published in different ways, again depending on the house style the publishing house uses. Quick examples using television titles:

“Stranger Things” (AP Style)

Stranger Things (Chicago)

At the Vanguard, we’ve recently opted to go with italics for all television titles—same as Chicago. Again, this has to do with the concept of space, or rather, conserving as much as we can on the page. If we at the paper went back and forth between using AP Style most of the time and using Chicago when it’s convenient, you would end up with an inconsistent looking newspaper.

Ultimately, becoming fluent in both Chicago and AP Style will help a new editor build a professional skillset readymade for the freelance world. Being able to work in both frames of mind will not only expand your career prospectives but also train your eyes and brain in a sharp, rigorous way.

Is freelance editorial work right for you?

As the publishing industry evolves, media and publishing independents have witnessed the dissolution of the full-time copy editor. Among magazine, news media, and book publishing entities, an in-house copy chief is often considered a luxury of days gone by. The expense of the full-time position is often too difficult to justify, and the responsibility of clean copy can fall on in-house production teams.

Enter the outsourced editor—the freelancer. Everyone needs an edit, and freelance work in a variety of editing formats often goes to the bravehearted independents. Hence, the world’s copy editors of 2018 often find themselves living the dream of the remote entrepreneur, the freelance copy editor.

According to an article in World Economic Forum, “freelancers represent 35% of the United States workforce … freelancing is on the rise worldwide.” And when numbers of independent contractors continue to grow among the labor force as a whole, those numbers may be even higher among professional editors.

“We are still at the leading edge of a once-in-a-century upheaval in our workforce,” states the October 2015 Monthly Labor Review for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The freelance surge is the Industrial Revolution of our time.” And whether as a side hustle or main squeeze, freelance work may be in your future, too.

And why wouldn’t editors try going it alone? It’s the American editor’s dream. Freelancers responded voluntarily to an unscientific poll, and offered what they viewed as the most beneficial aspects of their own experiences in the field:

“Most editing work requires a certain level of concentration that is almost impossible to achieve in an office environment,” wrote one respondent. “Being able to work from home, set my own hours, and be more selective about the projects I work on are by far the best aspects of freelancing for me.”

“Being able to set my own rules and guidelines,” another editor wrote. “I dislike following house style rules, especially if they make no sense whatsoever. Also, I have a chronic illness, so being able to work from home is vital.”

However, freelance editor testimonies also convey more complicated scenarios than these. At a glance, freelancing appears to offer attractive alternatives to the traditional office cubicle grind, and in many cases it does. But the reality is that there’s more to freelancing than meets the eye.

Being your own boss requires self-discipline and time management. Freelancing can often require the editor to edit work immediately as it becomes available. Fast-breaking copy can require the entrepreneurial editor to juggle life around the edits, not the other way around.

Regarding marketing and business promotion, freelancers claim the best means of advertising and growth is still via word-of-mouth reputation established among repeat clients and relationships developed over time. And while landing a full-time, steady position as an editor has become less likely, the opportunity to nurture long-term relationships with a few key clients can add up to a healthy revenue stream for a small business. However, when a freelancer delivers shabby work with lackluster results, they develop a poor reputation and do not last long as independents.

Just as any house marketing professionals would, freelancers make use of all the free marketing tools available to them—all social media vehicles within reach. They use Facebook, Twitter, and others. Freelancers also attend industry seminars, writer conferences, and stay abreast of changes in the industry. And it’s not all fun and games. Editors commented that the return on time invested in marketing can feel negligible.

Other potential pitfalls:

“There’s certainly a level of anxiety that comes from pursuing an inconsistent line of work. I’ve also had clients that expect far too much of my time for the rate they are paying me. I think it’s often hard for people employing freelance editors to remember that their project is probably one among many for that editor, and that because most freelance workers don’t have taxes or benefit costs withheld from their pay, the rate they’re paid ends up being far less than it may seem.”

Freelancers also need to maintain the standard in premium editorial services and the prevailing wage among the professional community. Editors advise the following:

“In the vein of pricing, I set my prices based on [Editorial Freelancers Association] standards, but even if I put that in a contract, about 50% of prospective clients still don’t understand the parameters for ‘reasonable prices.’ Many clients will try to argue or haggle over estimates, despite my contract specifically pointing to the EFA.”

“Don’t expect to get your best clients right away. It takes a lot of work and shameless self-promotion to get a solid list of clients. Until then, you should probably have another job on the side, because you won’t make beans for the first couple years.”

Additional editorial advice:

“Don’t let anyone refuse to pay you for training. I once, quite regrettably, sunk hours into unpaid training for a client who had a particular way of doing things. The training was so specific to their process that it was hard to transfer the skills I acquired for that client’s work to other projects.”

“Get qualifications, business experience, and a portfolio before even considering it. I prepared for six years before becoming freelance.”

“Have a business goal that will attract people to you. Find that one thing that makes you stand out.”

Whatever your entrepreneurial ambitions with editorial work might be, do your research, learn your market and its potential, and be persistent. Good editors make good writing happen.

The Hybrid: When the House Style Guide Creates a Frankenstein

Opinions are like. . .you know: everybody’s got one. House editing style guides and preferences are no different. Browse through any random collection of imprint house publications, periodicals, or online articles, and you’ll witness a menagerie of guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), and a smattering of personal preferences seemingly chosen at random. The resulting style format can resemble an amalgamation of spare parts—something akin to a Frankenstein’s monster of house style. The curious aspect is the specific, obscure details individual editors decide to take a stand on—the hills upon which they choose to fight and die.

The minutia editors sometimes battle over regarding their in-house style guides is often actually arbitrary. As Amy Einsohn identifies in her seminal work, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, an editor’s chief concern is consistency. Unless a specific punctuation format, page layout issue, or capitalization question muddles an author’s intended message, the specifics of style are subjective. What matters most is developing a house style that nurtures familiarity for readers, a reliable format that endears readers to a publisher’s signature style.

Consider The New York Times, one of the most successful newspaper publications of all time. Many aspects of the paper’s articles adhere to AP style; some do not. The paper’s headlines, for example, resemble a format closer to CMOS regarding capitalization, but the effect is one of the Times‘s most endearing characteristics. The purpose of a house style guide is to engage repeat readers with a given consistency of style.

The concept bears keeping in mind the crucial constituency Einsohn defines: Copy editors must serve the author, the publisher, and the reader (3). An editor’s process begins with the careful initiation of her relationship with an author. “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change,” (178) writes Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in her classic work, Frankenstein, and an author experiencing the inner conflict of style choice changes made without their consent can feel personally slighted at the abrupt modification. When an author’s submitted manuscript is suddenly rearranged into a formatting style contradictory to their comfortable darlings, the sudden shift can feel like a wound.

With this in mind, consider the ongoing struggle between prescriptivist and descriptivist grammarians. Carol Fisher Saller writes in The Subversive Copy Editor, “The sad fact is, in spite of their enthusiasm for imposing rules on other people’s copy, copy editors are not always aware that some of their long-held rules are controversial or have even been discarded” (51). In other words, building a monster of style choices harvested from CMOS, AP, and personal preferences doesn’t have to be a blasphemous move away any be-all end-all of standards. A copy editor has to know the rules to break the rules, but as long as the resulting publication serves the constituency, the product isn’t broken.

So, copy editors of the world, as you build your own house style, feel free to unearth your preferences from a range of sources. Borrow a head from here, an arm from there, and bolt it all together into your own, unique monster. As long as the house style guide serves the writer, the publisher, and the reader with a consistent, reliable format, a hybrid of styles is nothing to fear.

My House, My Rules

“Please take back out every Oxford comma,” a journalistic-minded author of mine once said. I began my editing career using Associated Press (AP) Style, so I understood his suggestion, but the house style at my current company mandated the use of the serial comma. We had a short, spirited, and (thankfully) respectful debate about it, and ultimately house style prevailed. I convinced the author that the meaning in his writing remained unchanged and using a serial comma accomplished something important to the company—it maintained consistency throughout their titles.

If you’re a copyeditor, you’ll inevitably run across a writer that questions the choices you make in order to fall in line with house style or a style guide. Most of the time you can do as I did above and simply tell them that you made this choice for consistency. But every piece of writing is different, and sometimes a style choice will compromise the writing’s meaning. Take a work of cleverly crafted stylized fiction; if the tone and the meaning of the piece is diminished by blindly applying a style rule, you may want to re-examine your process. This is why it’s important to approach each project with fresh eyes and a mission to serve the reader in the best possible way. You could memorize all one thousand pages or so of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and still find moments when CMOS doesn’t provide an answer or the rule outlined won’t benefit the text. Use your head, though; if an author isn’t using commas because they think they’re “lame,” you need to get on your soapbox and preach about reader comprehension.

Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the “Chicago Style Q&A” and author of The Subversive Copyeditor, promotes the idea that style rules are often arbitrary and changeable. According to Saller, “Your style guide—or any given ‘rule’ you learned in school—was created so you would do something the same way every time for the sake of consistency, for the reader’s sake.” She goes on to explain that if adhering to a style rule will complicate the reader’s understanding of the text, or if an author makes a strong case against the rule, it’s all right to consider departing from convention. Saller’s on the University of Chicago Press’s payroll and still recognizes that a style manual isn’t always the ultimate authority when making editing choices. In fact, here is one of my favorite quotes from her: “Rules are made to be broken; copy editors are not.” For more of Saller’s wisdom, you can check out her blog here.

As copyeditors shift from job to job and, as a result, house style to house style, they develop a unique background and quirks that influence their work. For example, I worked for a managing editor that had an arbitrary hatred of the phrase “for example.” I never got a clear answer out of her as to why, but she would’ve made me change the beginning of that last sentence to “for instance.” In a departure from CMOS (16th edition), I like to keep technological terms as updated as possible—email and ebook without the hyphen, internet with no capitalization—choices that are becoming more common as this type of language evolves. Another of my quirks, which is much less popular, is a preference for “ok” over “okay” or “OK.” This habit, probably as strange to some as the “for example” example, is purely based on personal inclination, and I usually have to let it go.

I’m okay with it.