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Creating a Simple Custom Style Guide

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This article examines a simple way to track and communicate style decisions tailored to individual projects.

What Exactly Is a Style Guide?

Style guides contain standards that help you produce consistent communications. Use of a style guide simplifies writing, streamlines production, and enhances the quality of your books. You may already use a guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, or even The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Such guides help, but you may want to adapt certain guidelines or to create additional ones for each new book. Here’s one way to go about it.

How to Organize a Simple Style Guide

Writing a style guide is less daunting when you know what to include and how to organize it. First, concentrate on those areas where more than one standard is common. For instance, you’ll usually need guidelines for abbreviations, capitalization, compound words, numbers, and punctuation.Using a word processing program, you can organize a simple guide on paper or in electronic form. In one part, list general guidelines; in the other, list specific words alphabetically. I recommend a two-column format, which you can achieve by tabbing between columns or typing entries in the cells of a two-column table. See your word processing manual for details. Figure 1 shows a sample style guide/word list.

What to Include in the General Guidelines

In the top part, identify the project and list general conventions for capitalization, contractions, numbers, and punctuation. Later, you’ll record specific words in the bottom part. Note the “Last Update” line near the top right corner. Because style tends to evolve over time, revision dates are important. Most word processing software can display a new date automatically each time you revise a file. It’s also wise to number each page.

PROJECT STYLE GUIDE: _____________________________


Last Update: 10/15/98 page 1

General Guidelines

Capitalization: _ Up X Down

Punctuation: X Closed _ Open

Contractions: X OK _ Not OK

Serial commas: X Yes _ No

Numbers-spell to: _10 _20 X 100

Word List

Use Not

AAs AA’s, A.A.’s
[1st: AA (author’s alternations)]

coauthor co-author, co author

Dave De La Rosa, editor-in-chief Dave De La Rosa,

epilogue epilog

Patricia Paine, Patricia Paine,
permissions editor Permissions Editor

sales rep, sales representative salesman, saleswoman

White, E.B. [no space] White, E. B.

Let’s take a closer look at standards for capitalization, contractions, numbers, and punctuation.Capitalization. Simply put, “Up Style” capitalization uses more optional caps than “down style.” Settle on one approach or the other, then list exceptions in the bottom section.Contractions. You may want contractions in some types of books but not in others. You might, for example, use contractions freely in fiction but limit them in reference books.Numbers. Except for measurements, which are almost always numerals, most publishers spell out numbers at or below a certain “cut-off” point (10, 20, 100). Many book publishers spell out numbers up to one hundred and use numerals for higher amounts.Punctuation. Punctuation involves two major choices: a general approach (closed or open) and the treatment of serial commas. Closed punctuation involves more optional marks than open punctuation.Closed punctuators usually use a serial comma-one that precedes a conjunction in a series of three or more items. For instance, the comma before and in “writing, editing, and proofreading” is a serial comma. Open punctuators would write “writing, editing and proofreading.” With some exceptions, closed punctuation is more common in books, and open punctuation is more common in newspapers and magazines.Now let’s examine the bottom of Figure 1.

What to Include in the Word List

In the bottom part, list specific words alphabetically, including abbreviation and spelling preferences, compound words, and special terms. An alphabetical list helps you locate words quickly. Listing alternatives makes it easier to search for problem words and to replace them with your preferences. The bottom left part of Figure 1 lists sample word preferences; the bottom right lists rejected forms.Abbreviations. To introduce abbreviations, some publishers place the abbreviation first, followed by its meaning. Other publishers do the opposite. This explains the reminder in brackets after AA. When you list abbreviations, note their capitalization, punctuation, and spacing (as in White, E.B. vs. White, E. B.).Compound Words. Compounds present a challenge because many of them evolve over time. They start as two separate words, merge into one word with a hyphen, sometimes become one word with no hyphen, and occasionally split into two closely associated words. Thus, the entry coauthor. Some compounds take different forms, depending on their use.Spelling. List words with tricky spellings and those that can be spelled more than one way. Figure 1 lists a preference for epilogue over epilog.Word Preferences. Also record special terminology and bias-free language, such as sales rep or sales representative in place of salesman or saleswoman.You can include much more information in a word list: imprint and series titles, reference titles, people’s names and job titles, and so on.

Managing Multiple-Page Guides

If your guide will require several pages, you might create a document with two sections, each with a different header. In the header for the first section, list your general guidelines, the project name, and the date and page number, as shown in the top of Figure 1. In the header of the second section, list only the project name, date, and page number (and if you wish column heads for your alphabetized list), as shown in Figure 2.

PROJECT STYLE GUIDE: _______________________________


Last Update: 10/15/98 page 2

Use Not

Figure 2 – Following Pages

This approach to style guides saves room and allows you to isolate the bottom part so you can quickly highlight it and alphabetize your list automatically.© 1998 Lana R. Castle. All rights reserved.


Lana Castle runs Castle Communications, an Austin-based editorial service. She is also a columnist and author of “Style Meister: The Quick-Reference Custom Style Guide.” Her book, which helps readers customize and manage style for individual projects, is available to PMA members at a 20% discount. Call toll-free: 888/291-5005 or see http://www.castlecommunications.com. You can reach Lana at PO Box 200255-358, Austin, TX 78720, 512/346-2375, e-mail lc@castlecommunications.com.

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