Consistency in Editing Style Guides: The Importance of Balance Between Precision and Simplicity

Kim Staflund: founder and publisher at Polished Publishing Group (PPG) and author of the PPG Publisher’s Blog

Okay. I think there is now enough distance between me and the situation I’m about to discuss here to be able to write a helpful blog post on the topic—one that I genuinely hope is helpful to editors, proofreaders, and authors alike.

Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my biggest pet peeves in this book publishing business is inconsistency in editorial style. I hired my own editors and proofreaders for my first three books. Because I’d self-published these books through different publishers, each book was also edited by a different person as recommended by that company; and, clearly, each of these editors was using a different editorial reference guide because the styles of each of these books is very different.

Long story short, back in 2009, I founded Polished Publishing Group (PPG) and hired an absolutely stellar, experienced team of editors, designers, indexers, proofreaders, copywriters, and you name it, to ensure professional quality for every author who published through my company. I even took the time, with the help of my top editor, to create a PPG Editorial Style Guide that would ensure consistency in how we edited our books combined with a respect for each author’s heritage (i.e. one guide for Canadians, another one for Americans, et cetera).

I took full advantage of this incredible team to help me produce my 2013 book titled How to Publish a Book in Canada . . . and Sell Enough Copies to Make a Profit!; and, while the editorial style used for this book was again different from my first three books, I wasn’t worried. I was so pleased with the end result. I knew this book was not only a helpful guide that could teach authors the important fundamentals of quality book publishing, but it also served as a physical example of the lessons inside. I was thrilled!

The following year, I published the worldwide sequel titled How to Publish a Bestselling Book … and Sell It WORLDWIDE Based on Value, Not Price!. I hired the exact same team to help me produce this book; and I felt at ease with the assumption that finally, at long last, I would see consistency in the editorial style of this book to the one I’d published the previous year. After all, it was the exact same editing and proofreading team at work on what was a very similar book. What could possibly change?

There’s an old adage that one should never “assume” anything because doing so makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” This was certainly one of those times.

Once again, my fifth book was edited differently from my first four books. There were many little arbitrary changes made such as altering the spelling of things like “eBook” to “ebook.” There were also changes in the way quotes appeared. For example, in the 2013 book, quotes remained within the same paragraph and were indicated with quotation marks around them; whereas, in the second book, quotes were separated out as their own indented paragraphs without quotation marks around them.

I tried to ignore it. I tried to just brush it off and let it go. But as the weeks went on, my annoyance grew. Why the arbitrary changes? If it was considered correct in the 2013 book, then why did it have to be changed in the 2014 book? What was the point? How was it possible that an editor edited her own edit from one year completely differently the next year? WHY?

Finally, it was bothering me enough that I opened up a dialogue with my editor and proofreader about it. Editors and proofreaders are detail oriented, God bless them; and let’s just say I opened up a flood gate! In their heartfelt attempts to appease me and offer helpful solutions, they both sent me paragraph after paragraph of detailed suggestions that included recommendations of various additional editorial reference guides we might also consider in the future. WHAT? Rather than simplifying things, they seemed to be complicating them even more … at which point, I must admit, I came very close to chewing my own limbs off. They had completely missed the whole point.

We mulled through it together and found what appeared to be an amicable solution. We decided to create individualized, customized editorial style sheets per each author so that at least all the books published by an individual would remain consistent. The agreed upon intent behind these customized guides was simplicity and consistency. The sole purpose of creating such a guide was simply to indicate any deviations the editor may have made from the primary editorial reference guide he or she used to edit the book—of which there should be very few—so that the proofreader could continue with the same style. In other words, from that guide, the proofreader should be able to say, “Okay, I should use the Chicago guide for everything other than ‘such and such a detail’ where the editor deviated from it for these reasons as indicated.” The same editor/proofreader could also use this guide as a reference for future books by the same author so every book by that author was consistent in style.

It sounded like a great idea. It sounded like the perfect solution. Unfortunately, we continue to see inconsistencies in editorial styles due to many seemingly arbitrary and unnecessary changes that are made with probably all the best intentions in the world.

I love these people. I’m incredibly grateful that I met them and have had the chance to work with them for the past four or five years. They make all our books better because of their attention to detail. This is why it has taken me so long to write this blog entry … because it is somewhat a criticism of their techniques that I know will sting a bit.

If there is one bit of advice I want to emphasize most in this blog post, it is this: from the author’s perspective, simplicity and consistency is most important. And that’s who we’re working for here—the author. Yes, authors want their books to be the best that they can be. But too many changes, too many options, and too many ways to do/spell/position the same thing is far too confusing—especially when the changes are unnecessary.

Editors and proofreaders need to learn to balance precision with simplicity. When they are reviewing a manuscript, they need to ask themselves, “Are these changes I’m making really necessary? Or is it already correct the way it is? Would it be okay to leave it alone?” Remember, the more changes you make, the more work you create not only for yourself but also for the author, the designer, and everyone else all along the project time-line. It all adds extra time (and possibly even extra costs) into the project. Is it worth it? Maybe it is. But many times, it isn’t.