2 Preparing copy

2.3 Editorial style and house style

2.3.1 Editorial style and decision-making

Editorial style controls the way in which words, individual characters, and numbers are presented on the printed (or electronic) page. Stylistic consistency is an important characteristic of published material because it removes one possible cause of interference between the text and the reader. Inconsistent styling, whether of the words themselves or their presentation on the page, may distract or even mislead, and can affect the credibility of a publication, just as a work that is well finished in these respects can project an air of general reliability.

The essential features of editorial style relate to:

  • • spelling (including the use of hyphens)

  • • punctuation

  • • capitalization

  • • abbreviations

  • • treatment of numbers, dates, and time

  • • use of italic and bold type

  • • use of quotation marks.

All of these matters are dealt with elsewhere in this book. For spelling and hyphenation see Chapter 3; for punctuation see Chapter 4; for capitalization see Chapter 5; for abbreviations see Chapter 10; for numbers see Chapter 11; for the uses of italic type see Chapter 7; for quotation marks see 4.14 and 9.2.3.

Other conventions that are the subject of editorial decisions include:

  • • the components and typographic style of bibliographic citations

  • • the content of notes and in-text references and their relation to bibliographic citations

  • • the editorial treatment of displayed epigraphs and quotations and their sources

  • • the punctuation of lists

  • • the style of in-text references to non-text items such as illustrations, figures, and tables, and cross-references

  • • the order and contents of prelims and end matter

  • • the content of running heads.

For coverage of bibliography see Chapter 18; for notes and in-text references see Chapter 17; for quotations see Chapter 9; for lists and tables see Chapter 15; for illustrations and figures see Chapter 16; for prelims, end matter, and running heads see Chapter 1.

Stylistic precepts come into play only where there are alternative solutions of equal or comparable validity. For example, a style decision is needed between ‘co-operate’ and ‘cooperate’, each of which is a viable spelling of the word; a choice must be made between ‘sine qua non’ (roman) and ‘sine qua non’ (italic), either of which can be defended. It follows, therefore, that no appeal need be made to stylistic conventions or record kept of them where text is incorrect—for example, a place name beginning with a lower-case letter is not in normal circumstances the subject of a style decision—or where orthodox practice makes a mode of presentation all but incorrect: for example, to style the title of a published book other than in italic in open text would be so unusual as to be tantamount to an error in most book publishing contexts.

It is important to recognize that style decisions are ‘made’ by leaving text unchanged as well as by changing it; the copy-editor must identify forms that are diagnostic of particular style points and record them explicitly for application throughout the script. The following example contains a number of implicit style decisions:

In 1539 the monastery was ‘dissolved’, and the Abbot, in distress of mind—recognising that there was no alternative but to co-operate with the King’s officers—blessed his monks (they numbered fifty-seven), prayed with them, and sent them out from the abbey gates to follow their vocation in the world.

If this passage were left unaltered the editor would have ‘decided’:

  • • to use single quotation marks

  • • to capitalize the titles of office holders (Abbot, King)

  • • not to capitalize informal references to institutions (monastery, abbey)

  • • to use closed em rules for parenthetical dashes

  • • to use -ise not -ize endings

  • • to spell out numbers (or, at least, those up to 100)

  • • to use the serial comma.

2.3.2 House style

A publisher’s house style embodies its preference for how copy is set and laid out on the page. It thus encompasses some elements that control design as well as editorial presentation, including:

  • • the layout of headings, paragraphs, quotations, lists, and notes

  • • the make-up of typeset pages

  • • the application of hyphenation at line endings.

Some or all aspects of the publisher’s house style are usually set out in a style sheet or style guide. Ideally this document will form part of the instructions sent to authors, so that they can follow the house style in creating the work. If this is not done, or if authors follow a different style, it may be necessary for the copy-editor to change the editorial style of the work in the course of editing it.

In some cases—where consistency across multiple publications is important to the integrity of the material—house style or an appropriate adaptation of it should always be imposed; examples include:

  • • issues of a journal

  • • individual volumes in a multi-volume publication (including reference works)

  • • closely integrated series.

How much importance is attached to house style in the case of separate works, however, depends on the policy and traditions of the publisher. In some cases it may be unnecessary or even unwarrantable to impose house style. Where an author has attended carefully and consistently to editorial style and the conventions pose no practical difficulties they may be best left alone: the copy-editor can probably spend editorial time more usefully than in overturning a serviceable and watertight system of editorial decisions, and an imperfect conversion of the author’s to the publisher’s style will damage rather than improve the work. On the other hand two factors should be noted: it is easier for an experienced copy-editor to impose a familiar house style than to learn an author’s style and to check that it has, in fact, been consistently applied; further, those handling the work in the later stages of production may assume that house style has been used and may unwittingly compromise the consistency of the text by making corrections that match house style rather than the author’s own style.

Even when house style is in use, it may need to be adapted to the special requirements of particular works. For example, in a historical context modern spellings of place names might be inappropriate; and in a specialist context general practice should not supplant scholarly usage of foreign words or technical terms.

Print versus Web style

The copy-editor should be aware that different stylistic considerations hold sway when working with web pages (see Web editing in 2.1.2), and house style may reflect this. For example, to improve readability on-screen, a house style might stipulate a maximum length for sentences; encourage shorter paragraphs, and more bulleted lists and headings; and minimize the use of punctuation, hyphens, and capitals to reduce visual distractions. Link style may be prescribed, e.g. substituting click here with a descriptive target, such as book online. These may run counter to the house style for print, so it is helpful to make these differences clear.

2.3.3 Editorial style sheets

No house style, however detailed, will cater for all the editorial or design decisions needed to set a publication in type. Just as the designer needs to specify typography for every book, so the copy-editor needs to record particular decisions on editorial style for every book, sometimes supplementing the house-style guidelines, sometimes preparing a completely new set of ‘rules’ that govern the text. When the editing task is complete this file, setting out the editorial decisions that have been made and applied to the text as a whole, has many uses. It is, of course, crucial to the copy-editor’s own work as a record of decisions that have been made—no editor can hold the minutiae of editorial style in his or her head through an entire script. It may be sent to the author as a convenient means of accounting for minor changes made throughout the work. Some publishers send the editorial style sheet to the typesetter for reference. The proofreader ought to receive the style sheet with the proofs so that he or she can tell whether particular style points have been considered and decided by the copy-editor. And the style sheet should be preserved for use by the editor of a future edition of the book or of a related volume.

There are different ways of presenting editorial decisions in a style sheet—a simple alphabetical list, for example, in a word-processed document or a spreadsheet—but for purposes of easy retrieval and comprehension by those who work on the text after the copy-editor a generic approach is clearest. Under headings such as:

  • • spelling and hyphenation

  • • punctuation

  • • capitalization

  • • abbreviations

  • • numbers

  • • italics

  • • quotation marks

the copy-editor should record high-level decisions, subordinate decisions, and individual examples. So, for example, the section on spelling and hyphenation might begin with a statement that British English spelling is used and that a particular dictionary is taken as the authority; next, decisions on particular words or groups of words should be recorded (such as those with the suffix -ize or -ise); and finally a list of examples (ordered alphabetically) will be needed. The section on numbers would start with a general statement about the threshold chosen for changing from words to numerals, and go on to list exceptions (such as dates, round numbers, numbers used with units of measure).


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