An American Editor

August 19, 2015

Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure

Maybe the headline exaggerates a little — but not a lot! I am nearly, finally, happily, finished with a project that has been the most difficult project I have worked on in years if not all of my 31 years as an editor.

The problems begin with English not being the native language of the authors. If that was the extent of the problems with the project, then there really wouldn’t be a problem; the project would just be difficult, but not extraordinarily so.

What makes this particular project so difficult is the style guide that is to be followed: The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed. by the American Chemical Society (ACS) (Anne E. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson, editors) — especially when you combine its strictures with the American Chemical Society’s CAS Source Index (CASSI) Search Tool for bibliographic information.

The purpose of a style guide should be to simplify communication between an author and a reader by making it easy to comply with a group’s style preferences and easy for a reader to have all the necessary information that the author wishes to communicate. Although I have my quibbles with The Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed., Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format 7th ed. (the 8th edition has been available for a year but I haven’t had need for it yet), AMA Manual of Style 10th ed., and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association 6th ed., none of these publications seem to go out of their way to make an author’s and editor’s work destined to fail as the ACS does.

I take pride in the quality of the editing I provide my clients. I believe one of the reasons I have been as successful over the years as I have been is that I am a topnotch editor who delivers well-edited manuscript in a timely fashion. I do know that I am offered many more editing jobs than I can handle, which I take as an indication from my clients that they perceive great value in my editing skills.

Yet even providing a client with a well-edited manuscript, I am able to maintain a decent rate of pages edited per hour. Those of you who have been long-time readers of An American Editor know that I charge on a per-page basis, which means that I have to be able to edit at a decent rate in order to be profitable.

But I have met my waterloo with the ACS style.

The reference styling requirements are illustrative. Most styles tell you, for example, to list only the first few authors of a journal article followed by et al. Not ACS. ACS style is to “Include all author names in a reference citation” (p. 291) unless a specific publication says otherwise in its in-house style manual. That wouldn’t be too terrible (until you hit the articles with a large number of named authors) except that author names are punctuated like this:

Cotton, F. A.; Rose, T. J. P. A.; Blinker, J. P., II; Muskrat, E. P. S., Jr.; …

Note the punctuation. And the spacing. And think how easy it is in a reference list of 200 entries to miss a space or a punctuation mark, especially when many of the references list more than five authors. This is a design for failure.

Complicating the problem is that the journal names, which are abbreviated, often do not adhere to the common abbreviations found in databases like PubMed. In addition, punctuation is required. For example, the journal Acta Crystallographica. Section C, Crystal Structure Communications‘s PubMed abbreviation is Acta Crystallogr C and its CASSI abbreviation is Acta Crystallogr., Sect. C: Cryst. Struct. Commun. Combine the CASSI abbreviation with the instruction in the Style Guide that essentially says you can ignore the approved abbreviation, and chaos reigns.

Consider the publication Science. According to CASSI, the approved name is Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) (note how U.S. is punctuated but DC is not). However, because CASSI doesn’t list another journal by the single name Science, it is OK to omit the place of publication. (My immediate question was: “Suppose I know of another publication by that name but CASSI’s database doesn’t yet list it. Do I keep the place of publication?” The Style Guide doesn’t say.)

What all this means is that the chance of error increases and the editor needs to check every entry in CASSI (you can also check Appendix 14-1 of the Style Guide for “CASSI Abbreviations for the 1000+ Most Commonly Cited Journals”). Fortunately, as I did each chapter I built my Journals dataset so that I could run EditTools’ Journals macro, which reduced the number of journal names I needed to lookup and/or correct. (See The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars for more information about the Journals macro.)

ACS reference styling has many more quirks that make the system so different from other styles. But the real question that is not answered (and I don’t really expect to see it answered directly in any style guide) is this: Do all of these requirements actually help the reader or are they make work that, because of complexity, are likely to lead to author and editor errors?

That is the real crux of a style guide. Every rule, every pronouncement, every decision made by the editors of a style guide needs to be weighed against this standard:

Does it actually help the author and reader or does it add a layer of complexity that is likely to lead to error?

Complex, difficult-to-master requirements not only greatly slow the authoring and editing processes, but also make it easy to “err” by violating the requirement. I view this as style guide “terrorism” largely because the style is difficult for no clear betterment of readability and because too often a style guide’s “rules” are too rigidly applied, with adherence to the “rule,” rather than readability, being the measure of editorial competence.

Unfortunately, The ACS Style Guide‘s complexities, of which the reference requirements are just one example, serve no purpose that I can discern other than to be different from other style guides. To my way of thinking, such a purpose — to be different so one can claim to have one’s own style guide — is unworthy. As I said above, it would be better to make readability the test. The current edition of The ACS Style Guide was published in 2006; perhaps a fourth edition will rethink the guide’s approach.

Have you found other style guides similarly overly complex for no clear betterment of readability?

Richard Adin, An American Editor




  1. I would love to see a companion post on good style guides for science! We use a house style guide, which has its idiosyncrasies, and some inspiration for a possible revision would be great.


    Comment by gem — August 19, 2015 @ 5:58 am

  2. I’ve always found the CMOS index to be very difficult to use. The answer to almost every question I have is buried somewhere in that tome, but finding it is a bear sometimes!


    Comment by Carolyn — August 19, 2015 @ 6:06 am

  3. I empathize with your complaints about unduly complex style manuals, but anyone who claims repeatedly to be a “topnotch editor” should at least edit his own post according to accepted standards. Your article is riddled with surprising mistakes.

    The problems begin English — should read “begins WITH English”
    I do know that I am offered many more editing jobs than I can handle, which I take as an indication from my client’s that they perceive great value in my editing skills. — should read “my CLIENTS”
    (My immediate question was: “Suppose I know of another publication by that name but CASSI’s database doesn’t yet list it. Do I keep the place of publication? The Style Guide doesn’t say.) — close quotation marks at the end of your question
    To my way of thinking, such a purpose is — to be different so one can claim to have one’s own style guide — is unworthy. — delete first “IS”
    The current edition of The ACS Style Guide was published in 2006, perhaps a fourth edition will rethink guide’s approach. — replace comma with semi-colon and insert “THE” before guide.


    Comment by Romy — August 19, 2015 @ 8:47 am

    • I agree. I should better edit my blog posts. Unfortunately, I do not have time to do so; in fact, I have difficulty finding time to even write the essays, let alone edit them, and sometimes I have less time than usual. My time is spent making sure my clients get quality editing and entertaining my grandchildren. It is a problem of being overworked and pulled simultaneously in multiple directions. Of course, self-editing is more difficult than other forms of editing because we tend to see what we expect. I appreciate the corrections, which I will make to the essay.


      Comment by americaneditor — August 19, 2015 @ 8:57 am

      • This exchange brings to mind a modern dilemma. On editorial e-mail lists and forums I belong to, it’s a policy for members to *not* upbraid each other over typos or clumsy phrasing. These lists/forums are considered informal correspondence, opportunities for wordsmiths to interact as humans and to occasionally mistype or otherwise fumble while exchanging professional information and experience. But I’ve not yet seen a standard applied to blogs. In this case, we have a blog with open comments, which creates a dialogue, which creates an informal-correspondence environment like the lists/forums.

        So… should an editorial blog — a non-revenue venture run by unpaid people on voluntary time — be held to top professional standards? That’s definitely desirable and a constant goal, but is is necessary for credibility? Is a typo in this context of the same or different importance as a typo in a job done on the clock wearing one’s professional editor hat? Are editors expected to be perfect? (I certainly am not! — and make a point to never promise that my performance will always be 100%. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever delivered an edited manuscript that didn’t contain a blooper, or typed up an e-mail without one, or published a book without at handful.)

        A client and I are actually having a bit of fun playing the equivalent of “Where’s Waldo?” with his manuscript. I seek out his bloopers, and he makes a list of mine. We discuss both as part of the project. How refreshing that is in contrast to clients who refuse payment if the editor makes one mistake, then publicly badmouth the entire profession, encouraging other authors to eliminate us from their plans because we’re liars and rip-off artists!

        Despite my own typos, I still qualify as a good edidtor. And having had AE edit some of my work, I can vouch for his skill level as “topnotch.”


        Comment by Carolyn — August 19, 2015 @ 10:21 am

  4. I was present at a rebellion by historians ordered to use the APA Style Manual.
    They (the historians) did prevail and were allowed to use their preferred Chicago Style Manual.


    Comment by Francine — August 19, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

  5. The article makes it clear to me that I am glad I chose something simple rather than editing as a career – merely plastic and reconstructive surgery. Love the “Where’s Waldo?” approach.


    Comment by Harvey Austin — August 20, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

  6. My late father was a research chemist. English was not his native language. I began editing and proofing his work while I was still in high school. At first, he asked me to proof for basic mistakes and then worked with colleagues to complete the more sophisticated work of preparing the texts for publication. Later, as I became older, and he realized I was pretty good, I was allowed to “graduate” to full editing. I spent many a night at the kitchen or dining room table crossing out entire sentences and rewriting them. This, I must add, was still during the days of typewriters and very early computers. Our early father-daughter editing exercises put me on my path to becoming an editor, for which I am grateful. That said, ACS – you have my deepest sympathy. Really. Very cumbersome. I have some half-baked theory that since chemistry was one of the earliest sciences that was published, and the style guide was probably developed during the days of lead type/letterpress and (probably) rarely updated, the extra spaces have something to do with the physical restraints of the old printing method. For those who remember lead type, you may recall that there were letterpress dies with an uppercase letter, followed by a period and a smidgen of extra lead that acted as a space. I do think that’s the origin of all the extra, and now unnecessary, spaces.

    As for alternatives, the style guide used by the Royal Society of Chemistry publications might be a better choice.

    Re: errors in AE blogs – I say let it go. We get it. This is an opt in/opt out, informal forum, more like a living room with friends than a conference presentation. If you can’t relax among your own, then where can you let your hair down?


    Comment by Irene Jarosewich — August 26, 2015 @ 9:28 am

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