On style

Karen Hellekson's picture

Life has taken a backseat to editing work, which has kept me either gainfully employed or insanely busy–whichever. Same thing. Within the past 3 months, I’ve switched to doing mostly book work, because it pays better than journal work, although this has occasioned its own bumps. Notably, authors, hi, don’t know if you know this, but if you don’t return the work, I DON’T GET PAID. So, um, if you could return those corrections, that would be great!

Because I’ve been doing lots of books, I’ve been writing lots of style sheets. One benefit of journal work is, there’s one style sheet, you edit to it, and you’re done. It’s prescriptive because the papers are supposed to all match. With books, not so much. I have to construct a style sheet for each book. Sometimes this involves a crash course in, say, the technical aspects of filmmaking, with attendant jargon and terms.

I used to construct style sheets for a living, back when I worked in house, and I can knock them out like a champ. For book work, the resources I use are, in order, the house style book; Chicago Manual of Style (CMS); and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (MW). (Although I edit in the humanities, none of my clients uses MLA style. I’m thus not actually sure why MLA style exists. I’m sure some people use MLA style–like, probably the MLA. I just don’t know any press personally that uses it. I think of it as a style used by students, not publishing professionals.*)

The style guides provided by the presses are usually quite minimal, but they contain valuable info. For example, one of the presses I work for asks that all ranges be full. Good to know! Similarly, house style sheets state the style the documentation ought to be in. Usually they follow CMS with their own tweaks. For example, not a one of my university press clients has moved to the use of postal codes for states in bibliographic contexts; they all want standard state abbreviations. House style will also specify how to do dates (is it 00 Month 2000 or Month 00, 2000, or do they not care–just pick one?), time, ordinals, and the like. One of my clients provides me with a very useful list of names of theorists and philosophers in literary studies, so I know, for example, to add haceks to Zizek’s name, or how to spell “Georges Bataille.”

Although CMS is currently in its 16th edition, all my clients are still using the 15th, and some are still on the 14th, if their documentation is anything to go by. Luckily, CMS hasn’t changed all that much in the Greater Scheme–overlooking Documentation II’s ill-advised changes in the 16th edition, of course. I impose CMS style most importantly for documentation, but also for number style, styling of percentages, singular possessives ending in s–in fact, anything not mentioned in the house style guide.

That leaves my best friend, MW. I spend a lot of time looking up words, and actually the TERMS list comprises comprises much of the style sheet. When editing, I have MW† and a browser with Amazon.com up at all times, so I can look up words and people’s names. MW is so endemic in the industry that the production notes that go with a book manuscript will specify the terms that the press has decided will violate MW. A book I’m editing right now wants “website” and not “Web site,” for example.

If I look back at all the books I’ve edited in the last few months, my impression is stolid old-fashioned-ness. With periods in abbreviations like U.S. and standard state abbreviations instead of postal codes in documentation, the overall impression is not of sleek modernity but of stolid, reassuring authority. This makes perfect sense for university presses.

Here are the sections of the style sheets I write: listing of sources consulted; general style; number style; technical/statistical style; notes style, with examples; references style, with examples; style for figure captions; style for tables; and TERMS list.


* Part of my reasoning for MLA style being for students prepping papers, and not for actual print publication, is that their style guide doesn’t address the finer points of styling and typography. A perfectly reasonable question, like “Does MLA style use en dashes to hyphenate open compounds?” cannot be answered by perusing the MLA stylebook.

† Although I could use MW online, I usually don’t, because it’s graphics heavy, slow to load. and annoying. I purchased MW in hardcover when it came out, and it came with a CD to load it onto my computer. That’s the version I use.

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Karen Hellekson

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 28 Nov 2011 02:51:36 +0000