What it is
Editorial style is a set of conventions for creating written documents so that such thing as capitalization, punctuation, dates, numbers, word usage, and many other guidelines for producing copy and graphics clearly and consistently.
Editorial style is not what people regularly think of when they say “I like the style of Faulkner.” That is writing style, which can be good, bad or indifferent—and sometimes miraculous. It involves choices among an infinite number of combinations of syntactic and semantic elements. Neither is it the what people think of when they say “Use my style sheet.” This reference to style refers to the way a text editing application (like MS Word) formats such things as headings, font, paragraphing, lists, etc.
Example, with inevitable problem
Take the words click and select in user documentation. Most technical-writing style guides — IBM’s and Apple’s, for instance—make a useful distinction between in the use of these common words in user documentation:
- Click the Printer icon to bring up the Print dialogue box.
- Select the Custom radio button to specify a date range.
See the difference? It makes sense. But also note also the capitalization conventions in these examples. Most technical writing guides (if they anticipated this sort of example at all) would have both Printer and Custom capitalized. Does this make sense? By definition, an icon is shorthand of some sort. No user interface worth its salt will have the word Printer next to . Custom, however, will be a word next to one of two or more radio button selections, and the word will probably be capitalized.
So, should the writer capitalize a word that is not even being documented? Hardcore consistency freaks would say, “Yes, because the words are contrasted and the capitalization makes that clear.” Equally hardcore WYSIWYG freaks would respond, “But that word, capitalized or not, is nowhere on the interface I’m documenting!”
Ay, there’s the scrub
I love The Andy Griffith Show, and Barney is incomparable. His Rule Number One in “The Big House” episode (where Barney is manic to prove Mayberry’s jail is up to snuff) is funny for a reason.
What is Rule Number One? “Follow all rules!” Let’s face it: Style guides and their writers tend towards Barneyness. In my experience, the “rules” of writing are up for grabs daily because people create unique tools and processes, and they write and speak unique sentences everyday. Full of potential truth, beauty and utility, language must and does change, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not.
For instance, I might be called old-fashioned in disagreeing with AP Style on the not capitalized seasons (spring and fall, really?!). These to me will always be proper nouns because there is only one Spring and one Fall. On the other hand, I think the AP is too dogmatic when it insists that the only good com-
pound adjective is a hyphenated one.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it is fitting to this discussion that Rule Number Two in Barney’s big house is a cautionary one for the writers of style guides:
Do not write on the walls, as it takes a lot of scrubbing to get writing off of walls.