Editing a style guide – when is editing needed?


You may have read my last blog post, ‘A new experience: copy-editing for a publisher’. It was about working for a different type of client for the first time (a publisher) – I usually work for individuals. I mentioned in that post that parts of the style guide for this first copy-editing job I did for a publisher had been unclear and I’d had to ask the project manager to clarify them. I’d also thought that the guide was a bit lacking in content. When I was sent the second job to do for the same client, I was told that the style guide included minor amendments, one of which proved to be quite problematic.

Style guides are rarely perfect

The style guide was helpful but not comprehensive. There was one guideline in particular that just didn’t seem to make sense. I was sure it was incomplete or needed editing. When I’d been working on the first job and had asked whether a particular guideline was correct, I’d been told that it was and asked to stick to it. Unfortunately, this time the project manager was on holiday, so I had to use my own judgement to get the job done within the fairly tight timescale.

I interpreted the confusing guideline as best I could, applied it with exceptions that I thought were essential and explained in a note to the project manager what I’d done and why.

The project manager was pleased with the work I’d done and admitted that the style guide wasn’t perfect. She asked me if I was interested in editing the guideline I’d found so confusing so that it was unambiguous, which I did. I also mentioned a couple of other things that I thought it would be useful to include or change in the style guide. I drafted some minor changes and these have now been incorporated.

How long should a style guide be?

I was very grateful to have had a style guide at all, as I’m used to working without one and creating my own, but I found this editing exercise really useful in terms of thinking carefully about the minimal instruction needed to save the copy-editor and later the proofreader a lot of time.

I was tempted to suggest more changes, and ideally I think this particular style guide would benefit from having more detail, but, given that I’d only been asked to consider a couple of items, I decided to do what had been asked and no more. It’s possible to go on for ever with a style guide, and one that’s too long may be a hindrance rather than a help. I once had to check that a relatively short text was consistent with a 48-page style guide. I think it took almost as long to read and absorb the style guide as it did to copy-edit the text. So a style guide that is concise but covers the essentials is probably better than grappling with a monster like that.

Editing a client’s style guide was something I’d not done before, and this second move into doing something new was a good exercise in thinking and working in a slightly different way.