I started doing some editing work for a large organization last week, and they sent me their in-house style guide to use as a reference. I read that sucker top to bottom, and this is going to sound crazy, but I actually enjoyed it. Style guides are great for the same reason that recipes and user manuals are great: they tell us what to do in order to achieve the expected result. You want cake? OK, follow these steps. You want a clear, readable, easy-to-understand piece of writing? Here’s how to achieve that.
There are several large and well-known style guides: the Canadian Press Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style are two of the big names, and many major publications use one or the other as their bible. If you’re writing for a publication, you’ll be asked to follow those guidelines. I know I said two weeks ago that writing should reflect the individual writer, and I stand by that. What a style guide does is not standardize a style of writing, but ensure clarity, flow, and readability.
It may sound like a pain to refer to a book for how to capitalize terms or write out dates and times and, to be honest, sometimes it is, but it’s also liberating in its own way. The technical decisions are taken out of one’s hands and one can simply focus on the topic, the words, the meaning, and the story.
That said, all writers who write for a living have their particular preferences in terms of style, grammar, and so forth. If there’s more than one way to do something, then a writer probably has an opinion about it. When I received that organizational style guide last week, I felt a little frisson of anticipation as I approached the section on commas, and when I finally reached their position on the serial (also known as Oxford) comma, I actually clapped my hands and shouted to my husband, in the next room, “They’re pro-Oxford comma!” (I think he may have thought I’d gone slightly mad. Maybe working at home is messing with my sense of normality a little.) In my experience, nothing divides professional writers like the serial comma. In fact, this particular style guide admits that the Big Style Guides generally advise against its use, but they find that it improves clarity, so they prefer it. I couldn’t agree more. (If you want to get into it with me, I have no issue with that, but I think we should do it at the bar.)
Other things that style guides can help with include when and how to hyphenate things, when to abbreviate the names of states or provinces, and how to differentiate commonly-confused terms, such as mediator and arbitrator or alternate and alternative. In short, a clear and well-written style guide can make a writer look both smart and well-organized. Some days, that’s help we can all use.
So don’t resent the style guide. Use it to your advantage. Trust me, even if you adhere to all its rules, your personal style and creativity will shine through – perhaps even more brightly, since your meaning will be so clear.