A style guide – what is it and does your organisation need one?

Style Guides

Copy-editors and proofreaders are always talking about style guides. The style guide to be used on a document is considered to be essential information for the editor who is assessing a potential job, along with information such as the number of words/pages, if the author wants British or American English etc. Before starting a copy-editing job, the editor asks the writer…”what style guide are you using?” and the answer is invariably, “what’s a style guide?”

Well what is a style guide? It’s simply a list of the preferred spelling, punctuation, terminology and formatting of an organization. This ensures that all publications produced by the organization (and written and edited by different people) are consistent; it helps to maintain corporate image. It simplifies and improves the efficiency of the writing process, as there is a list of rules to refer to. You can find out information on a wide range of issues ranging from how to treat references, when to use italics and how to avoid discriminatory language.

Many large organisations and publishing houses have developed their own style guides, which are known as house style guides. Academic journals are very particular about their style guide (all use different reference formatting rules, for example) and request most article submissions to rigidly adhere to their style.

The most popular (and comprehensive) style guide in use in North America by the scientific community is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Journalist types prefer the Associated Press (AP) style guide. In Europe there are many style guides (Oxford Guide to Style [Hart’s Rules], The Modern Humanities Research Association [MHRA] (for theses), The Times and the Guardian style guide) but arguably none as large and wide-ranging as CMOS. European Association of Science Editors (EASE) provides its members with a useful Science Editors’ Handbook. Most science style guides have the same aim: to encourage writers and editors to use clear, simple language and to avoid jargon and scientific rhetoric.

You don’t need to develop your own style guide, you can borrow or use someone else’s. But it is essential to have something to refer to. If you don’t tell your editor of a style guide they will use their own, or make up one and you might not like their choices! So if you want to avoid conflict with your copy-editor, sort out a style guide!