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Thursday
Oct072010

Why you should love your stylesheet

‘House style’ can take on a number of guises. In the case of most publishers, it’s pretty straightforward: UK vs US spelling, use of quotation marks, maybe some basic formatting rules, not much more. With reference works, however, the stylesheet rapidly takes on a life of its own to become a style bible. On my first day of working at The New Grove I was handed an empty lever arch file, directed towards a computer and told to print, holepunch and file my own copy of the Grove style guide. The remainder of my first day was to be spent reading it, end to end. It’s nearly 500 pages long and I still have my copy.

And those 500 pages don’t include the numerous supplementary lists and databases with which we were expected to be familiar and that we were expected to consult at every turn: databases of bibliographic items, lists of journal abbreviations, approved names of institutions, places and dates of musicological conferences, and so on. Each of these lists was large enough to require management by at least one staff member. Like I said: style can take on a life of its own.

But to what end? The above image is taken from the cover of the BBC News Style Guide, an august publication that notes that maintaining a high standard of English is simply a responsibility that comes with the role of being a public service broadcaster.

In scholarly writing there is a more generally applicable answer: consistency confers authority. How an author spells a name, for example, is important. What transliteration system do you use for Russian, Asian or Arabic names, for example? How do you treat stage names, pseudonyms or names that change with marriage? In the case of something like Grove, for example, which is the central reference work for a particular academic discipline, the spelling the editors choose often becomes the preferred spelling of the discipline as a whole. The same can be said of the best academic books, or those that break new scholarly ground.

Yet the diktats of a stylesheet can cause controversy: Grove’s preference of Rachmaninoff for the great Russian pianist and composer (over the technically more correct Rakhmaninov or Rachmaninov) is a source of frequent debate. But in this instance the spelling chosen reflects the subject’s own preference: it may not be the correct transliteration, but it is how Serge liked to be known. Essentially it’s the stage name by which he became universally known in English-speaking countries, and that’s why it’s used.

In a good book, every such spelling has been thought through by authors and/or editors. Sometimes those spellings look strange to some readers, but their consistent usage is the clearest possible indication that a decision has been taken. Consistency confers authority.

When writing any book, therefore, it’s useful to sketch out a personal stylesheet of your own, listing your preferences for certain things you might often come across (how do you write a full date, for example?). When editing, the stylesheet becomes essential. For every piece of work I compose one as I go, initiated according to the explicit instructions of the client and expanded according to the realities of what they write. Whenever something comes up that requires my judgement (or is it judgment?), I make a note of what seems to be the author’s preference and make sure I stick to it for the remainder of the text. Sometimes those decisions have to be revised and retrospectively corrected: you can never be quite sure what peculiar situations a text might throw up at you that may cause a rethink. But the ever-present is the little bespoke stylesheet created for that particular project: a one-off house style. It’s probably the most useful tool an editor can use.

P.S. A template stylesheet, of the sort that I use, can be downloaded free to help you achieve consistency in your own writing. 

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