The successes and failures of style guides
Perhaps you’ve seen them. Perhaps you’ve even used them. Perhaps you don’t even know what they are. I’m referring to editorial style guides. Mention the likes of AP or Chicago Manual (both lovingly abbreviated titles) to an editor and you’ll see a flash in their eyes, maybe some glistening on their forehead, maybe even some slight twitching. Style guides mean a lot (and I mean, A LOT) to editors. These guides elicit such a visceral response because they are editors’ ammunition—they validate editorial perspectives and settle any copy disputes as style guide rules are perceived as editorial gospel.
And they are. Style guides are a fantastic means to keep copy lock-tight. You’d be hard pressed to find an editor who doesn’t have their preferred guide, waiting for the opportune moment to wax poetic about it. (I prefer AMA [American Medical Association Manual of Style], but only because I spent my formidable years working for the pharma industry. I also love regulation, but that’s another story…). I am, admittedly, a sucker for the rules.
But for all the excitement style guides cause editors, they do possess certain failures. As with any non-sentient device, style guides’ entire existence thrives on rigidity and the absence of human touch, even though humans are responsible for their creation. They seem to take on a life all their own after publishing. Almost as though each style guide morphs independently of its editorial board, each grammar and style rule sprouting forth from its pages devoid of human input.
The process of unlearning
Like any device built upon a series of rules, however, (like Siri and Alexa and Google Home) style guides help us, but they simply cannot fulfill the part of the human. Editors, human editors, possess the beautiful, creative brain to think, rationalize, and provide sound judgement calls on the written word. To edit, you have to have a passion not just for the rules, but also for having a much deeper understanding of the writer and the audience. Simply put, editors need to know when to break the rules.
Legendary editor of The Baltimore Sun, John E. McIntyre, addressed this very subject, “Actual editing aims at accuracy, clarity, and precision. Achieving clarity means balancing what the writer is attempting to say against what the reader is most likely to understand. […] All of us who edit have to accomplish as much as we can, given the materials we have, the tools with which we work on them, and the time allotted. False precision, the imposition of superstitions and shibboleths in the writing, wastes time and distracts from the achievement of genuine clarity.”
So “unlearning” becomes as hard as learning. Editors at the dawn of their careers learn that style guides should not be disputed. I suppose this way of thinking makes everyone’s lives easier. Edits can be made unequivocally and undisputedly, and we can all move on with our days. This way of thinking leads to a lot of edits and not a lot of good editors.
The difference between a good editor and a great editor
Writer of the well-known blog, The Subversive Copyeditor, and editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A, Carol Saller, says, “…our work is all about the rules. It’s what we do: we take a chunk of writing and we grind it through the style-guide mill, and we never once stop to ask whether logic and reason and the reader are served. […] We have the power to break the rule. […] Copyeditors have a choice as to what kind of power they wield. They can wave about the rule book and try to assume the power of saying ‘No, you can’t’ to writers, or they can acquire the power of knowing when to break a rule in order to help writers achieve great writing.”
Great editors are not out to destroy lives or make writers feel foolish. Nor are they intent to stand on an editorial tower and dictate what’s right and wrong because they know the rules of a style guide more than you do. Quite the opposite—we are here to help—to help structure ideas, provide expert advice on writing, and to make writing the best it can be for its audience—regardless of style guide rules. We are the keepers of brand voice (be that a manufactured brand or a person) and sometimes, we lean too heavily on style guides. But take the person out of the personal and you get rigid writing that speaks to no one or unwieldy writing that more often than not misses the mark.