While you may sometimes find style guides restrictive and tedious to follow, they provide the basic guidelines for creating clean, consistent, comprehensible text.
Copy editing a body of text is arguably one of the most tedious parts of the writing, editing, and publishing process. There are countless style guides available, all with different expectations when it comes to punctuation, capitalization, format, and more. Additionally, each industry has different expectations when it comes to writing and editing.
These conflicting “rules” may lead to writers and editors alike asking themselves, what is the point of following a style guide so closely? Does it really make that much of a difference?
In an article for the journal Technical Communication titled “Using style guidelines to create consistent online information,” author Michelle Corbin Nichols discusses how consistent writing is dependent upon agreement with a style guide.
Nichols and her team of researchers performed user preference tests to discover the most effective ways that style guides communicate their guidelines to their readers. They looked specifically at technical writing in their research, but the principles they found can be applicable to a variety of writing styles and purposes.
Through tests and research, Nichols confirmed that “online information style guidelines are an invaluable part of the technical communicator’s life and that they do not restrict writers, but they challenge them to create better, more consistent, more usable online information” (Nichols 1994).
While style guides serve as great comprehensive resources for writing style, Nichols added that style guides should not be the end-all-be-all when it comes to editing for consistency. She said, “if you are given a set of guidelines to follow, challenge them!” (Nichols 1994). Nichols’ research into the effectiveness of style guides led her to conclude that the most important aspect of this topic is addressing “what the users want” and basing your writing and editing around that mindset.
As Nichols found, the main goal of editing for a specific style is to create the best text for your readers. Following the restrictions outlined in a style guide may seem like a frivolous task, but it makes a world of a difference for consumers of that text.
In order to cultivate an audience that takes something valuable away from your writing, it is important that the audience doesn’t become distracted by inconsistencies or easily fixable errors. Maintaining clean writing makes it easier not only for a wider audience to read, but allows for more people to be positively impacted by your writing. Whether you are writing an instruction manual for building a desk or a middle-grade chapter book, consistency is key.
To learn more about the importance of style guides, read the full article:
Nichols, Michelle Corbin. 1994. “Using style guidelines to create consistent online information.” Technical Communication 41, no. 3. https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=googlescholar&id=GALE%7CA16100911&v=2.1&it=r&sid=googleScholar&asid=c23b0923
—Payton Pingree, Editing Research
FEATURE IMAGE BY GLENN CARSTENS-PETERS
Find more research
Take a look at Brittany Passmore’s Editing Research article for more information on the importance of an updated style guide: “Why You Need to Update Your Style Guide.”
Read more about how to decide when to closely follow a style guide and when to branch out in Sarah Jensen’s Editing Research article: “When to Follow Your Intuition Instead of Prescriptive Rules.”