On the Same Page: You, Me, and the Style Guide

I really love the left-brain/right-brain duality of editing. It’s both prescriptivist and descriptivist. It’s a puzzle and yet has the same elements. Every project’s different … and every project’s the same—in that it has a need for a style guide.

You’ve heard me talk about the Chicago Manual of Style. If you have a question about punctuation, grammar, construction, documentation, copyrights, indexes (and on and on and on), Chicago has the answer. If you have questions about things like gender-neutral language or even whether the apostrophe-s should be added to make the possessive of Jesus, Chicago has a well-considered opinion.

In the United States, copyeditors working in the book publishing industry live and die by the Chicago Manual of Style, which gathers together generally accepted standards and practices for editing books. (There are more specific guides for specific types of publishing. For example, the AP Stylebook governs the news media; the AMA Manual of Style governs medical publishing, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association governs just what it sounds like. There are many, many more.) These manuals document the “rules” that allow for consistency in every aspect of the written/published word.

But there’s one more step to move us from theory to reality: the editor-created style guide. When I act as a copyeditor on a manuscript,* as I work I’ll build a style guide to govern that manuscript as it makes its way to publication. The proofers, the typesetter, the managing editor … everyone will need it.

At the very least, the project-specific style guide will include a list of conventions (what sorts of words are italicized and why, for example) and a list of words that I looked up (because an editor checks, remember) in the agreed-upon dictionary (very often Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, 11th Edition). There are always a lot of compounds on that list, because these words tend to be misspelled.

Sometimes I have to make a decision about how to deal with formatting—or any number of questions—and this will be noted on the style guide, too, along with a list of stories or people mentioned that will require a permission inquiry (this is the author’s responsibility), a list of Bible translations that were used, and any other items that need to be brought to the publisher’s (or author’s) attention.

If I’m working with an independent client, I send the style guide along with each pass; it will answer most questions that arise. And it might look something like this:

• lowercase deity pronouns
• spell out numbers per CMS
• eliminate periods from abbreviations (DC, PhD)
• no US following “the”—spell out United States
• ital foreign words, words for words, meaning of words, sound effects
• scripture is LC when it refers to verses or holy texts; it is capped when it is a direct substitute for “the Bible”
• use space-dot method for ellipses
• we’ll use the Oxford comma
• no indents on first line of chapter, section, or following a space break per CMS
(… and so on)

• Joe Smith
• Mary White
(… I made up these names, of course)


best seller (n.)
bin Laden (note LC)
check mark (n.)
(… and on and on)

The style guide helps me too. A 300-page manuscript can take days to work through (copyediting is intense, detailed work; professional organizations recommend working no more than six hours in a day at it, at which time one should switch gears and work on something else entirely). When I come back to a project after an absence of hours or days (it happens sometimes), the style guide is a record of every editorial decision I’ve made and assures I’ll be consistent in my corrections.

If you’re an author, the style guide lets you know the editor’s done her job, and gives you a jumping-off point for discussions about style or editorial decisions. Wonder why I kept taking the hyphens out of words like non-stop and adding them to mindset? Check the word list before you correct me: they’re actually spelled nonstop and mind-set. There should be few questions that a look over the style guide won’t answer.

Consistency is the watchword. Whether we hew closely to Chicago, use an alternate style set by the publishing house (though often you’ll see verbiage like “Use Chicago except in the case of …”), or even make a few executive decisions, the most important thing is uniformity across the entire manuscript. I find this process—adding words to the list, deciding how we’ll treat foreign words or references to decades (the Eighties? or the ’80s?) or industry jargon—very fulfilling. It satisfies my need for order in the chaos of editing.

* I’m talking about nonfiction here. We’ll discuss the needs of a fiction style guide in the next post.


Tweet: Check the word list before you correct me!
Tweet: The style guide satisfies my need for order in the chaos of editing.
Tweet: A style guide is a record of every editorial decision & assures I’ll be consistent in corrections.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. I’m wondering if there is ever room for personal style? For instance, I like to use phrases that are connected by dashes, especially when I’m coining a description. This is me, not Chicago. Is there no space for personal stylistic choices? (You’ll probably gasp at this question, right???)

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Of course there is! I, too, like to put parenthetical statements in between em-dashes, particularly when the sentence has gotten long and complicated. A good copyeditor should recognize the author’s personal style and/or voice and make allowances; on my most recent style guide I included this: “[Author] doesn’t always use complete sentences; this is her voice. On a few occasions I have removed the incompleteness, but only when I thought it smoothed things out.” This lets the managing editor know I was paying attention, for one thing. I often add words to the word list that are followed by “(coined by author)” for the same reason. A good editor is more precious than rubies. :)

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