GYWO: Why Every Writer Needs a Style Guide

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital. My previous GYWO post was on how to write when you don’t want to.

I’ve done a great many things in and around publishing, and one tool that crosses over a lot of different disciplines is the style guide. Ideally a style guide will begin with the writer and carry through all the way to production. When you’re doing the sort of publication that involves a manuscript being passed from writer to agent to editor to copyeditor to designer to proofreader, it’s a really valuable tool for communication of vital information to someone you may never interact with directly. Even if you’re doing the entirety of writing, design, and publication yourself, you’ll want one to keep yourself on track and to share with your editor. In brief, it’s a way of saying “I did it this way on purpose.”

A style guide begins as a sort of custom dictionary. It might include created terms:

B’myr is the capital city of Florinia

florn is the basic unit of currency in Florinia; plural is florni

Non-standard or unusual spellings:

Cathleen McNulty, not Kathleen

vampyre, not vampire

And your preference among equivalent options:

50/50, not fifty-fifty

rollercoaster, not roller-coaster

Style guides should be as long as you need them to be, so put in anything that you think a copyeditor might query. This is especially important if the term is used more than once, as a big part of the copyeditor’s job is ensuring consistency.

Once you add in production considerations, style guides expand to cover the actual styling of the text:

CHEMICAL COMPOUNDS: use subscript for numbers, e.g., CO2, not CO2

ITALICS: use for titles of books, periodicals, movies, and artwork. Short story titles are in Roman with quotes.

It should be clear by now that style guides are just as useful for nonfiction as they are for fiction, especially if your nonfiction involves technical terms. Even if it’s obvious to you that carbon dioxide is CO2 and not CO2, your designer may have slept through chemistry class, so put that in there!

Over time, your style guide will come to cover spelling, grammar, text styling, and whatever other nitpicky things you want to include. Here are some examples from a style guide I built as I was editing panel descriptions for Readercon, a speculative fiction convention:

DNF is an abbreviation for “did not finish” and can be used as a verb meaning “to stop reading a book before one is finished” (“sometimes you have to DNF and move on”).

F&SF is an acceptable short form for the title of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

fan fictionfan worksfan videosfan writing, and fan activity all have spaces, but fanficfanvid, and fanac do not.

from… to should only be used for an actual ordered range with end points: from the earliest to the latest, from A to Z. If listing unordered examples, use such as.

And here are quite different examples from the style guide for a magazine where I’ve done editorial work:

10-k filing

20th Century Fox (no hyphen)

30-something (adj.), not thirty-something

401(k)

Ideally your work will be edited by someone who isn’t you. Provide that editor with a copy of your style guide. They’ll read it through before beginning work and then make sure that the manuscript is consistent with the guide. They’ll also add to the guide if you’ve left things out, or query you if inconsistencies are found and not covered by the guide. The same will happen with your copyeditor, who will catch things that both you and your line editor missed, and your designer, who may add design elements (such as font choices and sizes for chapter titles and page numbers) or may create a separate design reference that serves a similar purpose. Until you’ve worked on a professionally designed book, you don’t realize just how many tiny choices go into every aspect of its appearance. (This is true for e-books too!)

The key thing to remember about your style guide is that it’s where you assert your right to do things the way you want to do them. By communicating your preferences, it saves you from having to stet a whole lot of changes and queries. Your editor may really, really prefer the spelling magic, but your style guide says magick, so that’s how it stays. Your publisher’s house style may call for italicizing foreign words, but if your style guide says not to do that, that’s a very strong statement that they should listen to. Don’t hesitate to use your style guide to express your preferences on any aspect of language or design that’s important to you.

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

2 thoughts on “GYWO: Why Every Writer Needs a Style Guide

  1. When my wife was the editor of her then-synagogue’s newsletter, one of the banes of her existence was arguing with the rabbi about which Hebrew/Yiddish terms should be italicized and which should be written in roman type.

    I think we should just avoid the whole issue by calling this dialect “Judaeo-English” and writing it in Hebrew characters.

    This is why nobody asks me to edit a synagogue newsletter.

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