Monday, May 13, 2013

Style guides (and what to put on your desk)

Newspapers, publishers and broadcasters have to use language correctly and consistently. They do this by maintaining their own style guides. Using one or more of these can help you write better English, provided you do so carefully.

What does a style guide contain? What can you use one for? Which one(s) should you buy or download? What other reference works should you have on your desk?

Using English correctly

Even professional writers, such as journalists and novelists, can make mistakes. A style guide contains  valuable advice on correcting common errors of grammar, spelling and vocabulary usage. 

Good style

You may write perfect, error-free English. But what you write may not be easy for all to read. How can you improve? All style guides include advice on good style, based on a common set of principles that include simplicity and clarity. 

British, American and other styles of English

Should you use American spelling or British spelling? It's up to you. Both are valid. If  you are writing in the United States for a local audience, American spelling is a natural choice. If you are writing in Britain for a local audience, you would use British English. For an international audience, there is no standard: you may use either, or another variant altogether. 

The New York Times uses American spelling and vocabulary usage. The Economist, although it has large sales in the United States, uses British English. 

House style

There is, however, no single style within American English, or within British English. For example, the New York Times style guide has rules that differ from other publishers in the United States. When you start working for a reputable company of that sort, one of the first things you need to learn (after you have located the coffee machine and the bathroom) is the house style. You will soon be in trouble if you ignore it, especially if you are an editor.

Which style guide is the one to use?

To learn how to write correct English and how to make your style easier for the reader to understand, I recommend reading any style guide, whether in American or British English. It is simplest to start with one style guide that you find attractive and master that. Once you have done that, look at other style guides and see where they differ. You can then build your own style guide, first of all in your head, and then, if you feel like doing so, in your own style notebook.

If, though, you need more help with spelling, it is best to start with a style guide in the kind of English you are using, American, British, Australian or other. This advice is particularly important if you are moving from one to the other, for example if you are an American and you are writing for a publication that uses British English, or vice versa. 

You will eventually find out what constitute the elements of "house style". Each house style consists of a set of decisions between alternative usages that are often equally valid. For example, good dictionaries will show alternative spellings of words like "judgement/judgment". In such cases, neither is "right", but it would look sloppy if the word is spelled "judgement" in one sentence and "judgment" in the next, and the reader may be confused.

If you are writing for a newspaper or publisher, you will be given (or, if not, will ask for) the style guide. If you are writing a letter, a blog or something else that does not require compliance with an external standard, but you nevertheless wish to be consistent in your writing, you will have to decide whether you wish to follow a single style guide or develop your own "house style" made up of decisions on alternative usages. 

I used to work for the Economist Group, as both writer and editor, so it's not surprising that I recommend The Economist Style Guide, which you can read free online here. My reason for doing so, though, is not that it is the only style guide with which I am familiar, but that it is clear, easy to use and understand, and is based on the six rules set out by George Orwell (see my earlier post on this). If you are writing American English, you will get great benefit from this style guide, but will have to ignore the spelling choices where these differ from standard practice in the United States.

I am not going to list all the other style guides. You can Google them or look them up on Wikipedia. I strongly recommend doing some online probing to see which one (or more) of them suits you before you rush out to buy an expensive book. 

The writer's reference bookshelf

Many people do their writing on the kitchen table or on a notebook or tablet computer in Starbuck's. The ideal place is a writing desk, i.e. a space dedicated to the craft of writing, whether on a computer or on paper. I confess to using online references nearly all the time now, but I can only do this with confidence because for many years I used solid, largely hardback, reference books. You can make your writing life easier by having a set of reference books handy, preferably on a nearby bookshelp or (best) on the desk, perhaps between heavy bookends. The minimum should be:
  • A good-size dictionary. For American English, Merriam-Webster, Oxford American or similar, for British English, Oxford, Collins, Chambers or similar. You may start with a pocket dictionary if that's all you can afford, but you will soon find that it doesn't have the words you don't know. A good desk dictionary is one of the best investments you can make.
  • A thesaurus. I personally prefer the original Roget's Thesaurus to the inferior modern offshoots. I don't like a thesaurus that lists the words alphabetically and gives just a few synonyms. Roget's Thesaurus provides you with a vast list of alternatives which is more likely to lead you to the exact word you need.
  • A style guide. I like the Economist Style Guide, but you should look at the alternatives in a good bookshop before choosing the one that suits you. If you are writing a scholarly treatise or any legal text in the United States, you should also purchase and use The Bluebook compiled by top universities as your citation bible. Make sure you have the latest edition.
  • You may also add other reference works, according to taste, such as Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable or Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary. If you haven't tried these, look at them online or in a bookshop. Even if you don't decide to use them, you will find much to enjoy. Be cautious in choosing and using a dictionary of quotations. If you can't find a quotation that fits aptly, don't use one.
  • If you want to write for publication, whether as a full-time living or a hobby, buy the latest edition of Writer's Market (US) or the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (UK). These will save you time wasted on writing the wrong things for the wrong publications and suggest appropriate places to submit your writing. Make sure you have the current year in the title to ensure that contact details are up-to-date.

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