Last week’s essay, Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure (the “ACS essay”), was devoted to what I consider one of the worst style guides editors and authors may have to deal with, The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed., by the American Chemical Society. But there is a corollary problem with style guides that is not the fault of the style guides themselves: the (often, usually) contradictory companion house exceptions (style) guide.
I work with publishers and packagers (packagers being the full-service third-party service providers that contract with publishers to provide all of the production needs for a particular project). Publishers use packagers as a way to reduce costs; the same work is needed and required, but because the packager is often based in a developing country, the packager prices the services at a price that reflects the packager’s lower costs and then finds freelance editors to provide editing services at a price even lower than the already low packager quote to the publisher. It is a way for a publisher to still get a book edited by an editor from a higher-priced country, which is desired, but without paying that higher price.
When I receive a project, I also often receive a lengthy house style guide that contains the exceptions to the style guide I am supposed to apply. For example, not too long ago, I received instructions to follow the AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed., which is, roughly 1,000 pages, and my client’s client’s 105-page house style. Where the guides conflict, the house style controls. Of course, there is another style guide lurking in the background, because both the AMA Manual and the house style say to check The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., for items not covered (or sometimes even for items covered) in the AMA Manual or the house guide.
It is not enough to be a great editor; one needs to also have a near photographic memory so as to keep the rules, the exceptions, the exceptions to the exceptions, and a third style guide’s strictures in mind.
And what do you do when a usage guide like Garner’s Modern American Usage contradicts the older house style or one of the powerhouse style guides?
What greatly bothers me are those house style guides that tell you to follow a specific style manual except where the house guide contradicts. Why bother telling me to follow the specific manual? Why not just give me a comprehensive house guide? Or, better yet, why not just scrap the house style guide altogether and let me follow the standard style guide?
The answer lies in the belief that each publisher needs to have its own distinctive and recognizable style. When a book published by Oxford is picked up, it believed that it should be immediately recognized as being an Oxford book. The reality is that very few, if any at all, readers recognize the publisher of a book by the style applied to the text. Not only do readers not care, but, much more importantly, it is the very rare book that actually faithfully follows any firmly recognizable style.
That’s because of the ultimate style and usage instruction given editors: “Follow the author’s style!”
I mentioned in the ACS essay the problem with references. Here is what a journal reference conformed to the ACS style would look like:
Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S. Synthesis of Tritium Labeled Mometasone Furoate. Med. Chem.: Immunol., Endocr. Metab. Agents 1993, 33, 439–442.
Here is that same reference but in my project author’s style:
Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S., Synthesis of tritium labeled mometasone furoate, Med. Chem. Immunol. Endocr. Metab. Agents, (1993), 33(5), 439-442.
The difference is even greater with a chapter-in-book reference. A conformed chapter-in-book reference would like:
Barnes, P. J. Glucocorticoids: Pharmacology and Mechanisms. In Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD; Lotvall, J., Ed.; Wiley-Blackwell: London, 2012; Vol. 2, pp 16–37.
whereas in the author’s style it looks like this:
Barnes, P. J., Glucocorticoids: pharmacology and mechanisms, in Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD, (Ed. Lotvall, J.), (2012), (Wiley-Blackwell), vol 2, 16-37.
Because of the number of references in the project and the schedule that had to be met, it was decided to follow the author’s style and make the references consistent. So what was the value in telling me to follow the ACS style?
What we end up with is a mishmash of styles. It also means that the editor spends more time styling than editing, because form has become more important than substance. Don’t believe me? Time how long it takes to conform the two author-styled references above to ACS style, including looking up the journal abbreviation. Multiply the time it took by 5,000 (the number of references in the project) and add 50% to that number. That is approximately how long it will take to conform all of the references. (The 50% addition represents the time that you will need to spend looking up each reference for the missing information and the correct ACS journal abbreviation as found in the American Chemical Society’s CAS Source Index [CASSI] Search Tool.) How much time is left for editing of the text in a 30-day schedule?
Also think about how much time is added for deciding whether something is a house-style exception to the style guide’s rule governing the item.
The point is that we have lost sight of the purpose of styling, of style guides, and of editing: to enhance the author’s communication with the reader. Instead, editors are increasingly being sidetracked to deal with mechanical issues (is styling references really what an editor should spend his time doing?) that often do not make communication between the author and the reader more effective.
For the most part, there is little reason for a house style guide as opposed to simply endorsing the use of a standard independent style guide. Sure there is a need to list certain preferences, such as capitalization of heads and whether, for example, “since” and “because” or “about,” “around,” and “approximate” are synonymous. But those preferences should be few; there should be no need for a lengthy exceptions document, especially when those exceptions are rarely strictly enforced, are often set aside because the author wants something different, and because trying to keep straight all of the nuances of the conflicts between standard and house style guide requirements often leads to mistakes.
Perhaps it is time to return to the original purpose of editing. What do you think?
Richard Adin, An American Editor