Curl Up With A Good Style Guide

My Aunt Jane used to read cookbooks like they were novels, and she was the best cook I’ve ever known. I think I understand the correlation, now that I work with style guides. If you take the time to dig deeply into them, you can learn so much about the craft of editing—and about your clients.

A house style guide, specific to a particular organization or even department, can tell you whether to use serial commas, whether it’s “ten” or “10,” but it can also tell you what’s important to that client. The association guide that includes a thorough section on unbiased writing alerts me to pay special attention to any usage relating to gender and ethnicity. The guide for a government research group that gives great detail about mathematical equations and industry abbreviations tells me that the data are (or “is”—check the style guide!) paramount. I approach their documents with the goal of keeping the language straightforward, and I check numbers and variables particularly precisely. Even an organization’s adoption of an industry style guide can be telling: Chicago for academics, AP to get to the point, AMA to stay within very technical boundaries.

And just like Aunt Jane’s cookbooks, style guides have their own voices, even senses of humor. I don’t know how many times I’d leafed through the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, checking the dry facts of reference punctuation or title capitalization, before I discovered Section 5.220: The Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases. Among the answers to so many age-old conundrums, such as who/whom and which/that, are glints of editorial wit. The entry for “lady” concludes: “Some will insist on using it to describe a refined woman. If they’ve consulted this entry, they’ve been forewarned.” And “sensuous” applies to “aesthetic enjoyment. Only hack writers imbue the word with salacious connotations.” Such a fantastic put-down!

Now, style guides may not be relaxing bedtime reading, but when you start working with new clients, it’s always worth taking the time to review their in-house guides or to brush up on the industry guides they follow. You won’t always laugh out loud, but you will always learn something that will make you a better editor.


Quotations are from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 262–300.


Written by Sheila Gagen, Director of Editorial Services at Vector TalentMEDIA. For more information about how TalentMEDIA’s editorial team can help you, contact Sheila at