An American Editor

March 24, 2014

The Practical Editor: Balancing Competing Interests

Balancing Competing Interests

by Erin Brenner

“Redoing a lot of work today because another editor can’t follow their own style guide. Gr… #amediting”

I tweeted that statement a couple weeks ago. For the client in question, I edit the thought leadership (a.k.a. content marketing) copy. It’s part of a newish program at an international company, and there are politics a-plenty. Just about everyone gets to put a finger in someone else’s pie and stir it up until it no longer resembles pie. Which is why all the copy I edit is reviewed by in-house copyeditors who can’t distinguish marketing from thought leadership.

Playing Politics

One reason I freelance is because I dislike politics. Yet I understand that we all have to play politics sometimes. It’s just the way the world works.

I accept that there will be editorial changes related to company politics. The key is knowing what the politics are.

If the changes come from someone high up in the food chain, I’m going to follow them. I report to the editorial director, and it’s in my best interest to keep his bosses happy.

If changes come from an in-house editor, I have my director’s blessing to reject them if they don’t make sense for the manuscript. Good editors know not to make changes just because that’s not how they would do it.

Understand what the politics are in your office. Who wields the power to cancel your paycheck or to make your life miserable? Know what kind of clout you have (or don’t have). Freelancers often have little, if any, direct clout, though supervisors can be called upon to use theirs to resolve a situation.

How important is the change? Important enough to risk losing the contract or job? There are situations when it could be, but give careful thought to whether this is one of them.

For this client, I have no problem overturning the “introduce any acronym before you use it” rule in certain cases. The audience expects the client to know what it’s talking about, and one way to demonstrate that is to use the jargon correctly.

However, as much as it frustrated me, I backed off when an in-house editor said we couldn’t quote a line from book without written permission. At the time, the editor appeared to have the backing of the legal department. It’s understandable that the company wants to protect itself, and it’s not worth losing the client over its risk-adverse nature.

Since then, however, my director has been able to sort the situation out to more realistic expectations.

Make your case to your supervisor, and let them resolve the situation. If you’ve given your best advice and the client rejects it, you’ve done what you can.

Balancing Style Guides

The corrections that drive me nuts, though, result from an editor not being familiar with their own style guide. But maybe it’s understandable. When I say “style guide” what I really mean is three in-house style guides and The Chicago Manual of Style.

Most editors are comfortable with balancing a style sheet or in-house style guide with a published style manual like Chicago. Follow the house style guide first. If the answer isn’t there, go to the published manual for the answer.

Balancing several in-house style documents is no different. The trick is to look for the pyramid. Then start at the top and work your way down.

For my client, the base style is the company’s branding style guide. It’s the broadest document, covering specifics about how the products and services should be described, how to refer to the company, what voice the writing should have, and so forth.

Yet the document is meant to be used by a variety of departments, which write very different things. What works in a tech manual is not going to work in the marketing copy. And what works for marketing won’t be successful in the company’s annual report.

My client’s marketing department created a stylebook to help communicate in the company’s voice while addressing the department’s specific needs. The focus is narrower than the brand style guide, so it sits above it on the pyramid. It encompasses lots of rules that would apply specifically to marketing the company’s products and services. Some of the rules are quirky, such as not using Latin abbreviations, not using passive voice, and always using present tense.

Understanding the reasoning behind the rules can help you decide when they apply. The company’s products and services can be difficult to explain, and writers often get caught in a web of abstractions that only confuse readers. Using active voice forces a writer to think about who does what, keeping the document in the realm of specifics.

The program’s style sheet sits at the top of the pyramid, having a still narrower focus. It highlights important rules from the other two guides for convenience, but it mostly covers exceptions to those rules and rules that apply only to this program. For example, thought leadership is as much about abstract ideas as practical advice. As a result, the writing contains more passive voice and future tenses than would otherwise be allowed. Different purpose, different writing style.

When it’s not clear which style guide outranks another, don’t just apply rules arbitrarily. Ask. Your supervisor should be able to tell you the chain of command. Be sure to record such determinations for reference.

It’s frustrating to work with someone who doesn’t know how to balance seemingly competing style guides. It wastes time and money. Take the time to understand the purpose of each style guide and the politics at work, and you’ll find your job is much easier in the long run.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.



  1. Frustrating, yes – but being the one to (try to) sort out these competing guidelines does have an advantage, at least if you’re being paid by the hour: more time on the project, and thus more $ in your pocket! I remind myself of that whenever I get mss. from clients who don’t even bother to spellcheck their work, much less follow a consistent style. It can be annoying to have to fix the same kinds of errors again and again – but it adds to my time, and thus to my income.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 24, 2014 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  2. Ah, yes, corporate politics abound. I’ve lived in the shadow of such politics for years, eclipsing everything that I did. I’ve experienced the very scenario that you’ve described.

    In organizations in which various types of content are written, such as technical and marketing, you’re going to run into the problem of not knowing the conditions under which the exceptions apply.

    We’ve decided on a single source for style and usage guidance for both writer and editors of marketing and technical communications.

    As you so eloquently explained, guidelines that work well for technical writers can create awkward constructions for the marketing and thought leadership writers. It’s easy to see that certain exceptions are needed to give writers some latitude.

    We decided to provide one definitive source that applies to all writers, with links to marketing exceptions. For example, the guideline for serial commas includes a marketing exception (no serial comma, except to clarify). Similarly, technical writers use the percent sign (%) rather than the word percent, but marketing uses the word “percent” not the percent sign, anthropomorphism is not okay in technical writing, but it’s acceptable in marketing, and so on.

    This might not be the best approach for some companies; the number of exceptions can be so large as to make the guide unusable.

    We also have plans to develop a database of product names, word usage, and terminology. All writers are directed to this database. This is an attempt to write in one voice regardless of style. If we should ever have to separate the marketing from the technical, your advice about the various guides is invaluable.


    Comment by Anna Biunno — March 24, 2014 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

  3. Good point, Ruth. Which is an incentive for us to ensure we get the highest hourly rate we can.

    Thanks for your comments, Anna. It sounds like you’re making the best decisions for your company.


    Comment by Erin Brenner — March 24, 2014 @ 4:40 pm | Reply

  4. Nice one. Figuring out which battles to fight is a long process. Mostly, I don’t fight anymore. “It’s not my book.”
    I hope you’ll also write about the other kind of juggling: remembering the specifics of each style guide. As I move outside my niche, I’m having to use more than Chicago for the first time ever. Sorting out competing style sheets was far easier, since they all had Chicago as a base. Keeping the preferences of Chicago v CP v Canadian Style straight—or even figuring them out—is challenging.


    Comment by Adrienne [scieditor] — March 25, 2014 @ 9:40 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Adrienne. I’ll add juggling specifics of style guides to my article list!


      Comment by Erin Brenner — March 25, 2014 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  5. I have a similar situation with one client, a nonprofit org. whose style guide is meant for publications going to the outside world. But many of the documents I edit for them are meant for in-org use, so I usually compile of list of deviations from their style guide when I start a new project, and then run it past the in-house editor in charge of the project. This saves me a lot of time in the long run, because sometimes the P.E. will say to use the house style and sometimes not.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — March 28, 2014 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

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