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Putting On the Style

Andrew John – All Rights Reserved

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 it’s 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 to pay?

So that wad of paper will usually contain an alphabetical list of examples of The Way We Like Things To Be Done. It’s usually called a publisher’s 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 consistency—whichever variant of a word you choose to use. Let’s 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.

Quote, unquote

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 newspapers)?

Contrary to what you may see in many—mostly tabloid and in regional or local—newspapers, 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 manuscript—if that is what you’re planning—will pass through a pair of dedicated hands. All this quotes business will be taken care of. But you can make that copy-editor’s job easier—and cost the publisher less—if 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 won’t 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 I’m a nerd. I get paid to think that way. I’m very boring at parties.

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 you’re doing your first or second edit. Many people do it this way. If you have received that wad of paper—the publisher’s style guide—have a good read of it before you begin editing your work. You’ll be surprised at how may words and phrases have two or more ways of being presented.

In the short series of articles for Writer to Writer that this article introduces, I’ll 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 these—and the other aspects of the nuts and bolts of writing that I’ll be covering—are more fraught with potential difficulties than many people think. But they needn’t 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 automatically.

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 you’ve already added.

Soon, these words and phrases will become ingrained and you won’t need to look them up. You’ll 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 (don’t worry: I’ll be covering that one).

Being consistent in your writing—right from the approach letter to the finished manuscript—sends a message to your intended publisher: this writer is a professional; this writer knows the nuts and bolts of English; this writer takes care.


You’ll find more grammar tips in the book I’ve produced with Stephen Blake (http://www.youcanwritebooks.com/). It’s about how easy it is to get published and break through the brick wall of rejection—and it does have some writing and research tips, too. You’ll find it useful. We’re both published authors (our fourteen or so print titles are listed on the website) and professional freelance editors, so we know what we’re talking about, and for just a few dollars you could be on the way to being a published author before you know it.



         Last updated: February 19, 2007