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Style Eternal: The Secret to Using Style Guides

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Coco Chanel famously said, ‘Fashion changes, but style endures.’ This certainly applies to the literary world, where the same main style guides have been used for over a century. Hart’s Rules was first printed in 1893, and The Chicago Manual of Style – the US equivalent – was first published in 1906. Since this time, writers on both sides of the Atlantic have used these style guides to ensure that their writing is accurate and their meaning is easily understood.

Why use a style guide?

If you’re an aspiring author, there’s nothing worse than being told by prospective agents that your manuscript looks unprofessional. When agents and publishing houses are being bombarded with stacks of manuscripts every day, you don’t want yours to stand out for the wrong reasons. Style guides provide you with a starting point to make sure your writing is clear, accurate, and in the expected format.

Whether you’re writing email templates for your business or a 100,000 word manuscript, accuracy matters. Mistakes can make you seem careless, impacting on those important first impressions.

Do style guides cover everything?

The two style guides mentioned above cover a huge amount of content, including punctuation, grammar, and the expected format for text and illustrations. However, both should be used alongside a trusted dictionary. For British English, I recommend the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and for American English, Merriam Webster.

If you‘re looking to seriously pump up your knowledge of editing and the publishing process, you could also invest in Butcher’s Copy-editing, the Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders. It’s hefty, and it takes you through everything related to the correction of proofs and typesetting.

Do I really need to know this much about punctuation and grammar?

If you don’t mind paying an editor or proofreader to correct errors, then you don’t need to worry too much about becoming an expert. However, writing accurately will save you time and money in the long run, whatever you’re producing.

If the size of the two main style guides above fills you with dread, there is a range of fabulous pocket-sized guides that will point you in the right direction without being overwhelming. For the last fifteen years, I have carried a battered copy of Anne Stillman’s Grammatically Correct all over the world, and I still use it today.

Do publishers use these style guides?

Publishers often have their own in-house style guide, but it’s a good idea to make sure your manuscript fits the general conventions for the market you intend to sell to.

Can you break the rules?

Like everything else in this modern world, the style guides are not treated as set in stone. Many great writers have broken these rules of punctuation and grammar, especially proponents of the Modernist Literature movement such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner.

For a more recent example, you could look at Sally Rooney’s popular novel Normal People. Rooney uses an unconventional style, completely rejecting speech punctuation, in a move that can divide readers (or cause an all out war as in my local book club).

But, if you’re going to break the rules, make sure you know them first. It’s obvious when someone simply doesn’t have control of the English Language rather than using nonconformance for effect.

I’m a self-publishing author. Which style guide should I use?

If you’re writing for your business, or you’re a self-publishing author, you can use whatever style (and therefore guide) you like. The most important thing is to be consistent.

Your choice will depend on where you intend to market and sell your book. New Hart’s Rules and The Chicago Manual of Style are a great starting point, but you may well want to personalise your style guide. A good editor can not only support you with polishing your manuscript but can also create a personalised style guide for you to use alongside it (and potentially for future manuscripts). This will ensure that you maintain your own voice and style, while producing a professional end product.

What about non-fiction writing and journalism?

Specialist forms of writing also have their own style guides. For instance, if you’re writing articles and content for media publishing in the UK, you’ll most likely have to follow the style guide of the relevant newspaper or broadcasting company. Both the BBC and the Guardian have online style guides that you can access for free to see examples of this. In the US, the most widely used style guide for journalism is the Associated Press handbook.

Even web copy has its own array of style guides: the Yahoo Style Guide for Web copy, Mailchimp Content Style Guide, and the Microsoft Writing Style Guide are just a few examples.

If you’re still unsure about how using style guides can help your writing, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to help:

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