The Writer’s Secret Weapon

If you’re writing and self-publishing book of any sort, but particularly a non fiction book containing facts and figures, here’s a great tip that will save you possibly hours of time in the correction and editing stage.

Write yourself a style-guide and stick to it.

Let me explain.
Look at this rough draft extract from a book about electric bikes.

On the urban commutes and similar short journeys which account for eighty per cent of electric bike usage, the electric bike is about 15 percent quicker overall than than any other form of powered vehicle. Although cars are capable of much greater absolute speed, traffic conditions in towns and cities reduce their average speed on an urban journey to below 9 mph, which is some 9 % slower than the average speed of an electric bike (just over ten miles per hour).’

Notice anything? In one short paragraph I’ve written percentages in three different ways, (eighty per cent, 15 percent, 9 %), miles per hour in two different ways (mph, miles per hour), and rendered numerals in both number and letter formats (9, nine, etc.)
It makes the thing difficult to read, it lacks clarity, and it looks sloppy. It’s just not consistent. It gives the impression that the writer is careless, and unconcerned with the quality of his writing. Which might also leave a reader concerned about the quality of his information.
And there are many more stylistic traps for the unwary.
How about ages, for example? Do you write ‘She was 30’, or do you write ‘She was thirty’?
What about dates? Should you write ‘April 1 1914′, or April 1st 1914? Or even 1 April 1914, or April first 1914’?
How do you deal with abbreviations (e.g. or e.g or eg?), Dates? Times? Titles?. . . The list of possibilities for inconsistent formatting goes on and on.
Of course you may argue that that your job as an author is to get the stuff down on paper in the first place, and ensuring consistency is the job of the copy editor (or should that be copy-editor?). And you’d be right—if you or your publisher can afford one. But many new self-publishing authors are their own copy editors, and I speak from experience when I tell you that trawling through a 300 page manuscript for the fourth time just to address these elements of consistent styling leaves you with an empty feeling of despair and a need to reach for the medicinal whisky bottle.
Believe me, it’s better to aim for consistency right from the start.
So, my advice to you is to put together your own style-guide as soon as possible.

A guide to your style-guide

A style-guide is not a guide to the basic rules of good grammar, correct spelling and clear communication, which should already be familiar to you. (If not you’re in the wrong job.)
A style-guide sets out your own house-style, which is just a posh name for a set of rules which ensure uniformity of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, numbers and all those other little rascals that are open to inconsistency of style.
In most cases there is no right or wrong way. Miles per hour is just as valid as miles-per-hour or mph. Thirty is no more correct than 30. (Unless it starts a sentence, but let’s not get too technical here.) It’s mostly a matter of preference. But the important thing is consistency. Be uniform across the whole document. Decide what your house-style will be, and stick to it.
Although there are generally no hard and fast rules, common practice, evolving modern parlance, and the need for clarity have led to some usages becoming widely accepted by the major style manuals (which we’ll look at shortly). You might want to adopt these rules.
Your own style guide will be tailored to your needs and what you’re writing. If you’re a writer of murder mysteries for instance, you might only need a few notes clarifying your treatment of dates, or ages. If you write history books you might also need to decide how you will handle foreign names, or titles, or references. A writer of a technical or scientific book may need a more chunky guide, addressing elements such as mathematical formula, percentages, numbers, statistics, equations, and anything and everything under the sun.
Sounds like a lot of work? It really doesn’t take that long.
As a starting point you could look at some of the major online style-guides. These have been developed by major publications with many contributing writers. The guide (often called a style manual), ensures that each writer adopts a tone and style consistent with the company’s wishes.
There are many out there, and a simple internet search will give you plenty to choose from. Here are just three.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online : A very widely used style manual published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press

Garbl’s Editorial Style Manual: Writing and editing advice about abbreviations, addresses, capitalization, English grammar, numbers, organization terminology, plurals, possessives, punctuation, spelling, word usage, and the World Wide Web.”

Telegraph Style Book:   The ‘official guide to house style’ for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and Telegraph.co.uk.

These are massive resources, and can cover anything from the correct spelling of Abbottabad (the city in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was found) to the correct use of the word ‘Zionist’. Clearly they are far more comprehensive than anything most authors need, but they are worth looking at for several reasons:

  • You can see how they address the styling issues that you face. . .
  • . . . which you can adopt yourself, if it suits your own style.
  • You can, if you want, identify and adopt those usages which are widely accepted as best practice.
  • They are handy to refer back to for guidance should any unexpected stylistic issue raise its head.
  • They are fascinating references in themselves, and a good way to waste half an hour if you’ve got the time to spare.

OK. I know that you are a writer. You’ve got a book in your head which needs coaxing out, and you need the diversion of concocting a style-guide like you need a snake in your bed.
But it needn’t take long. And take it from me, it’s not wasting time. It may be a pain, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

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