An American Editor

June 16, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Show Me the Style Sheet!

Show Me the Style Sheet!

by Louise Harnby

Recent posts here on An American Editor (The Proofreader’s Corner: Page Proofs and the Domino Effect) and on my own blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour (Thoughts on Proofreading and the Art of Leaving Well Enough Alone), have addressed some of the trickier aspects of good proofreading practice — issues such as when to leave well enough alone and the damage that can occur when a proofreader doesn’t take account of the consequences of their well-intended markup.

Readers’ responses to both of the above-mentioned articles clearly showed the value proofreaders and copy-editors place on a style sheet that incorporates a clear brief regarding the depth of proofreading intervention required for a given project.

I do so love a style sheet — partly because it helps me make sensible decisions about what to change and what not to change, thereby ensuring my markup is on point; partly because it saves the copy-editor and the in-house project manager the time of having to answer my queries; and partly because it makes good business sense for me. Not having to ask means I don’t spend my own time scratching my head, asking questions and waiting for responses. And that’s good for my business because some of my publisher clients operate on a fixed-fee basis so my hourly rate ends up higher.

I won’t apologize for my selfishness — I’m running a business and I want to do a superb job for my clients in the fewest possible hours. Being able to work productively and efficiently is therefore a core component of my business model.

But My Publisher has a House Style…

Indeed, your publisher client may well have a house style. But we all know that house styles are fluid entities. Preferences change over time depending on who’s employed in-house. Furthermore, even the most fixed house styles sometimes have to bend in order to facilitate good author–publisher relations. That’s why the individual job-based style sheet is crucial — it moves the proofreader away from the mindset of “this particular publisher likes things done like this” to one of “this particular job needs tackling in this way.” In other words, the house style is client-centered whereas the style sheet is project-centered.

When There Isn’t a Style Sheet…

When the proofreader doesn’t know how deep she’s supposed to go, there are risks. Let’s imagine that a set of proofs lands on her desk. There’s no detailed style sheet but her publisher client had previously issued her with a house-style document. House style insists on using “that” (rather than “which”) for restrictive relative clauses. The proofs have lots of instances of the “rule” being broken.

Scenario 1: The proofreader follows house style, since she’s received no instruction not to. She doesn’t know it, but the copy-editor took a gentle touch with this project because of the author’s sensitivities. All the proofreader’s “which/that” markup has to be stetted. She’s overmarked.

Scenario 2: The proofreader takes a “leave well enough alone” approach because, in British English, this “which/that” usage is acceptable (though not always preferred). She doesn’t know it, but even though the copy-editor applied a gentle touch, the publisher project manager is a stickler who wants to override the author’s sensitivities and is happy in the knowledge that the proofreader has the house-style instructions. When the PM sees the marked-up proofs, he’s disappointed with the job because the proofreader has undermarked.

In both scenarios the proofreader is sunk, though there’s a 50–50 chance that it could have gone the other way. In reality, though, there’s a third option for the proofreader: stay alert and query.

Querying is Essential, But…

Querying is good proofreading practice, but it has its drawbacks. It slows the job down. It can be inconvenient for the copy-editor because it relates to an “old” job — as one of my copy-editor colleagues once reminded me, the page proofs I’m working on were probably copy-edited by her two months previously. Queries are an interruption to her current work schedule and to her business practice.

The proofreader may also be anxious about appearing to question the copy-editor’s decisions. Or she may not want to appear to the PM as a proofreader who needs hand-holding. A strong style sheet helps to minimize these problems.

The Really Useful Style Sheet

A standard style sheet will usually include information about the publisher’s/author’s preferences with regard to the likes of compound modifying hyphens, capitalization, spelling style, suffixes, number elision, formatting of contractions, citation style, reference style, use of serial commas, date formats, special characters used, and so on.

The really useful style sheet goes that little bit further — it gives the proofreader the heads-up about the copy-editor’s experience of the project.

Perhaps the author was particularly sensitive and wanted only a light edit; or maybe there’s a style choice that’s been made that is unusual and clashes with the publisher’s standard house style. Now let’s imagine that the author’s seemingly bizarre inconsistency with regard to capitalization of key terms needs to be retained anyway (those of you who’ve worked on philosophy books will know exactly what I mean!). Or even though the publisher is usually really pedantic about using “that” for restrictive relative clauses, the editor has allowed the use of “which” throughout the text because it was felt that extensive changes would damage the author’s voice or interrupt the flow of the argument, and that not amending the text didn’t detract from its clarity. Maybe the author was difficult, maybe the pre-edited files were a mess, maybe a tight schedule led to decisions to overlook certain pedantries. Perhaps the proofreader needs to be alerted to specific problems that absolutely do need attention, and given time and budget would have been attended to by the copy-editor in other circumstances.

The point is that the more the proofreader knows, the better the job she can do — fewer queries, an appropriate level of markup, and less head-scratching are all great outcomes. The last thing we want to do is to frustrate our busy copy-editing and project management colleagues by doing too much or too little because we didn’t know what was going on.

The Land of Forgotten Style Sheets

Interestingly, my discussions with copy-editor colleagues about this issue indicate that many editors do indeed create wonderful style sheets, with lots of juicy information that will be invaluable to the proofreader. So comprehensive are their creations that some editors consider them to be a work of editorial artistry in their own right. It takes time to create a really useful style sheet. What a pity, then, that these don’t always end up in the hands of those who’d really benefit of them. Frankly, I’d be furious if I’d gone to all that trouble, only to find that my hard work had winged its way to the Land of Forgotten Style Sheets!

Where is the Land of Forgotten Style Sheets? I’m not sure. Giving directions is tricky, but previous addresses include a pile of paper on a publisher’s desk, a cluttered email inbox belonging to a busy in-house project manager, and next to a sandwich wrapper in the trash can.

What’s to be done? One simple thing might help. If you’re an editor who makes it your business to provide comprehensive style sheets for those further down the publishing chain, please could you take just a few seconds to make it clear that the proofreader needs to be sent a copy? Sometimes that little nudge is all that’s needed.

We proofreaders need to take responsibility too. We can nudge the project manager about a missing style sheet as soon as the proofs arrive.

There’s good news…

I don’t mean for my description of the Land of Forgotten Style Sheets to be critical of publisher colleagues. My personal experience is actually rather good — I have the pleasure of working for a number of publishers who’ve set up excellent production systems to ensure that the journey from manuscript to published page is a smooth one, and that the appropriate lines of communication between the professionals involved (e.g., author, PM, copy-editor, proofreader, indexer) are in place.

The point is rather that I can understand why the style sheet gets lost in the process. I’ve worked in-house — the editorial production staff have, arguably, some of the busiest and most stressful jobs in the building. Pressures include horrendous schedules, challenging budgets, and the juggling of multiple projects, to name but a few. Instead, this is a call for us to help them out by reminding them of what we need.

Summing up

The style sheet (especially the really useful one) is a little piece of magic in a proofreader’s toolbox. It helps us do a good job that complements the hard work of the author, copy-editor and project manager, and minimizes our need for hand-holding by the in-house project manager. Copy-editors and proofreaders who take a few minutes to check that the style sheets are available, and include all the necessary information, will be investing just a little bit of extra time that will reap huge rewards.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

6 Comments »

  1. […] The style sheet (especially the really useful one) is a little piece of magic in a proofreader’s toolbox. It helps us do a good job that complements the hard work of the author, copy-editor and pro…  […]

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    Pingback by The Proofreader’s Corner: Show Me the Sty... — June 16, 2014 @ 4:34 am | Reply

  2. Sideheads are inconsistent. Some are cap and lowercase and some are not.

    Like

    Comment by Cecilia E. Thurlow — June 16, 2014 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  3. Hi, just wondered! Is the “their” intentional here? “. . . issues such as when to leave well enough alone and the damage that can occur when a proofreader doesn’t take account of the consequences of their well-intended markup.”

    Like

    Comment by Elizabeth McDonald — June 17, 2014 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  4. Great post! I agree, style sheets provide so many answers while I’m proofing.

    Like

    Comment by April — June 18, 2014 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

  5. […] thing is, the term “style sheet” far predates Web pages and E-books. Traditional book and magazine publishers have used style sheets for decades, to define a standard […]

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    Pingback by Stylesheets, Then and Now | The Yellow Buick Review — June 26, 2014 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  6. Agreed with you that style sheet plays an important role in proofreading.

    Like

    Comment by John Smith — March 19, 2015 @ 6:48 am | Reply


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