Editorial Style Guides Are a Helpful Resource, Not Irrefutable Law

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Recently I saw a tweet that broke my copyediting heart:

This comment is a perfect illustration of why many people fear copy editors.

Writers, journalists, and others think copy editors are too strict, too critical, too literal. We’re zealots of the style guide, which we champion as gospel, never deviating.

And if making our clients strictly adhere to a style guide to the point that it extinguishes all character, voice, and feeling from their work—so be it.

That’s an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the common perception. And I understand why that perception exists.

The style guide is copy editors’ primary resource. They likely reference it a dozen times or more daily. It contains not only rules for grammar, punctuation, and syntax but also style guidelines specific to an industry or organization.

The style guide is key to maintaining consistency across all content channels, which conveys professionalism and upholds the brand voice.

Most newspapers abide by Associated Press. The publishing industry adheres to the Chicago Manual of Style. Beyond those, every organization often has its own house style guide that further delineates its preferences.

As a copy editor, I love a good style guide. Every time I onboard a new client, I create a house style guide for them, unless they already have one. It helps me to figure out my client’s preferences and adhere to them in every piece I edit. It can also be shared with writers or other stakeholders involved in content production.

NASA puts it nicely:

“The purpose of style guidelines is to achieve consistency in prose style and usage so that readers can become absorbed in the content and avoid being distracted by curiosities in form. Authors and editors likewise will have an easier task when they compose and revise by the same set of rules.” —NASA style guide

However, I admit that there is such thing as overdependence on a style guide. They should be a helpful resource, not irrefutable law.

Let me tell you a story about the dark consequences of unflappable dedication to a style guide.

For one magazine I copyedited for, I managed a 274-page style guide. I inherited it: It was likely started decades earlier by the magazine’s first copy editor and had been added to over time.

Adapting to that style guide took me forever. Months after being hired, I was still uncovering new style rules, which meant I had not been implementing the “correct style” in that time.

The abrupt changes I made to adhere to the new rules I had uncovered made the other editors and writers grumble: “You hadn’t been making us do this before.”

Sometimes I even found contradictory rules within that style guide because it had passed through so many hands.

The irony is that style guides are meant to ensure consistency, but when they become as unwieldy as 274 pages, they are almost a detriment to it.

Which is why I felt so in accord with this tweet—the one that inspired the tweet above that broke my heart:

This is especially true today with multimedia content. Traditional style guides were created for print. That doesn’t make them irrelevant, but they do need to be able to evolve with modern language and media. So do copy editors.

Copy editors realize this. We are trying to be more flexible. I adjust my style of editing depending on the industry, audience, and medium. For example, it may not be okay to use incomplete sentences or slang in a white paper. But that’s practically requisite for social media and blogs.

When I create a style guide for clients, I don’t immediately force them to stick to AP or Chicago style. I ask them three things:

Then I ensure consistency throughout the document. As I edit, I compile notes about repeat issues and preferences in a casual style guide.

My main goal in copyediting is readability. Will the audience read your piece and understand, using a minimal amount of brain power, what you are saying? Are you, the writer, saying what you think you’re saying?

Consistency is part of ensuring readability. A copy editor shouldn’t remove something the writer loves—such as killer lede—only for the sake of an arbitrary rule.

However, a caveat:

The copy editor should be strong and push back when something just doesn’t make sense and needs to be changed.

There’s a lot that copy editors can do to fight our “bad cop” persona (as longtime New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris describes us in her Ted Talk).

But applying a critical eye to others’ words is intrinsic to our role, and it’s inevitable that our notes are going to make someone unhappy at some point.

As long as your edit or change has a valid reason behind it, then most people will be receptive to it.

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