On the Style
© Andrew John All Rights
Why style preferences? Why consistency? Why do
in-house editors send out a huge wad of paper to would-be
authors and freelance copy editors containing editorial
preferences, rules, niggles? Is it not the quality
of the writing that counts?
Well, the answer to the last question is a resounding yes.
Quality does count. It counts for a lot. But the
people who may decide whether or not to accept your
proposal will learn an awful lot about you from the style
choices in your writing and your attention to detail. If
its sloppy, they may say, is this writer going to
cause us a lot of hassle? Will there have to be numerous
revisions before we get a manuscript we can send out to a
copy editor? And will that freelance copy editor take
twice as long as usual, thereby doubling the fee we have
So that wad of paper will usually contain an
alphabetical list of examples of The Way We Like Things
To Be Done. Its usually called a publishers
style guide (or something similar).
Publishers have what they call a house style.
So do many newspapers. There is no reason why a company
that produces a lot of text-heavy documents such as
reports and training materials should not do the same. So
this applies to all kinds of writing, and therefore
applies to you.
Casting the spell
What sorts of things are we talking about? Well, the
English language can be infuriating at times, and, just
to confuse us, tends to give us various spellings and
treatments of words.
Ideally, your writing should reflect
consistencywhichever variant of a word you choose
to use. Lets take a look at just a few examples.
Where there are variants of spelling (such as collectable
and collectible, drily and dryly, downmarket
and down-market, coordinate and co-ordinate),
which does your potential publisher prefer? It will be in
the style guide. Take a look.
Do your publishers use double quotation marks
("like this") for your primary quotations, with
single quotation marks (like this) for
quotations within quotations (favored by the USA in both
books and newspapers and by many British newspapers)? Or
do they prefer to have them the other way around, using
doubles within singles (favored by British book
publishers, many British magazines and some British
Contrary to what you may see in manymostly
tabloid and in regional or localnewspapers, they
should not be mixed willy-nilly: the distinction between
doubles and singles is a useful one to preserve, because
it tells your reader whether this is the main quote or a
secondary quote within.
Book editors are generally more careful than editors
on newspapers, and so your book manuscriptif that
is what youre planningwill pass through a
pair of dedicated hands. All this quotes business will be
taken care of. But you can make that copy-editors
job easierand cost the publisher lessif you
know these nuts and bolts and apply them.
The numbers game
How does your publisher like numbers to be treated? To
have one to nine as words, with figures thereafter? That
is the style of many newspapers and is a workable option.
Another is to use words for numbers up to nineteen or
twenty, and figures for anything higher (this may be to
avoid longer, hyphenated words such as twenty-one).
Some publishers also like to use words for, say,
approximate or round numbers ("It took about thirty
days"), but use figures for strictly statistical
material at all times ("It is 3 meters long and
weighs 8 kilos").
How about dates? In the UK, dates are usually (in
books, less so in newspapers) in the form "2 January
2006", which is logical, in that it puts the date
before the next one up, the month, before the one after
that, the year. Americans mostly write "January 2,
2006" or "January 2nd, 2006". Which does
your publisher prefer? Look in the style guide.
You wont wish to pay much attention to all of
this while the white heat of creativity is burning
through your fingertips to that keyboard, of course. As
an editor, I do tend to write and pay attention to
the style both at the same time. But Im a nerd. I
get paid to think that way. Im very boring at
You, on the other hand, may wish to get the creative
stuff down first, and then don a different hat and think
about consistency while youre doing your first or
second edit. Many people do it this way. If you have
received that wad of paperthe publishers
style guidehave a good read of it before you begin
editing your work. Youll be surprised at how may
words and phrases have two or more ways of being
In the short series of articles for Writer to
Writer that this article introduces, Ill be
looking at various aspects of style: more on quoting, for
instance; an article on some of the major aspects of
punctuation; an article devoted to when to use which
and when to use that (they are words that often
get confused, which can be vexing); and an article on
possessives (or genitives, if you prefer).
All of theseand the other aspects of the nuts
and bolts of writing that Ill be coveringare
more fraught with potential difficulties than many people
think. But they neednt have you tearing out your
hair. Language is a very logical thing in many respects
(oh, yes, there are some infuriating exceptions
and irregularities), and, once you get the hang of how
words relate to each other and how the punctuation helps
to preserve meaning, you begin to do things
So what can you take away from this first article?
Well, think of all the words and phrases you know that
could be expressed differently, that have variants. Then
decide which you prefer (or which your potential
publisher prefers). Make notes. Keep a page or two handy
as a file in your word processor with a link on the
toolbar, so you can call it up quickly to add new words
and constructions, or refresh your memory on those
youve already added.
Soon, these words and phrases will become ingrained
and you wont need to look them up. Youll just
remember instantly that this publisher (American) prefers
-ize endings, while that publisher (British) likes
-ise endings; that this publisher prefers "15
December 2005" and that publisher likes it as
"December 15, 2005"; that this publisher
(British) likes short punctuation (commas and full
points) inside closing quote marks of short quoted
fragments, while that publisher (British) likes them
outside (dont worry: Ill be covering that
Being consistent in your writingright from the
approach letter to the finished manuscriptsends a
message to your intended publisher: this writer is a
professional; this writer knows the nuts and bolts of
English; this writer takes care.