House style and the zombie apocalypse: How a poorly thought-out style guide can cost you

Professional freelance editors will be familiar with a few industry-standard style manuals:

  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Canadian Press Stylebook
  • Associated Press Stylebook
  • MLA Style Manual
  • APA Publication Manual

These references offer broad coverage of most style issues; they’ve been honed over several editions and generally serve editors well. Yet, the vast majority of organizations that regularly produce written communications and publications—including businesses, non-profits, government, as well as traditional publishers—will want to have their own house style. The key is to tame your house style before it takes on a life of its own.

Why do you need house style?

House style is important—for branding and identity, to accommodate audience expectations and ensure subject coverage, and for efficiency and workflow.

Branding and identity

As Barbara Wallraff of The Atlantic Monthly wrote in The Art of Making Magazines, “Even a bunch of highly skilled writers won’t do things consistently. And consistency strengthens the identity of a magazine.” The fact that you can see the word coöperation and know immediately that it comes from The New Yorker shows how powerful a style decision can be to a publication’s identity.

Even for non-publishers, house style ensures consistency of your brand: your organization’s name, its divisions and position titles, should always appear the same way. (For example, in Editors’ Association of Canada communications, you’ll see the organization called “EAC”—and never “the EAC.”)

Audience expectations and subject coverage

Industry-standard style manuals are fairly general and aren’t meant to cover specialized topics, so you may want your house style to fill in the gaps if you’re publishing in a particular genre. An example is cookbooks: publishers of cookbooks for the North American market have discovered that using only metric measurements and giving ingredients like flour in sugar in weight rather than in volume will basically doom the book to failure. These kinds of details would be helpful to have in a house style guide for a cookbook publisher.

Further, some specialized audiences have certain expectations; in some academic circles, for example, usage of particular words is restricted to specific situations, and capitalization and hyphenation can have carry special meaning. (For example, geologists will capitalize “Province,” “Zone,” and “Subzone” but not “subprovince.”)

Efficiency and workflow

Specifying a preference for one of several equally valid options helps establish your editorial authority and helps your editorial team work together. Nobody has to make the initial decision and communicate that to the rest of the team. You reap the most benefits if you use the same editors over and over—they’ll quickly adapt to your house style and use it automatically for your projects.

As for workflow, some house styles will also include special formatting and tagging instructions for editors to follow when they prepare a manuscript for typesetting. These elements are also important but, as I’ll argue later, should be separated out as process guidelines rather than style rules.

How do zombies fit in?

House style guides serve a legitimate role. The problem is that too many house styles are rife with zombie rules.

Zombie rules, a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, refer to rules that may have made sense in the past but no longer apply. Some people like to make the distinction between zombies (which were alive at one point and are now dead) and bogeymen—which never made sense and were, in linguist Geoff Pullum’s words, “just mythical beings invented to frighten children.” For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to all nonsense rules—previously alive or not—as zombies. Further, I’m extending Zwicky’s term beyond grammar and usage to all rules that should no longer rear their heads—because of changes in language, technology, or process. Other zombies creep into a house style guide because of personal preferences and pet peeves.

If you’re responsible for your organization’s house style, you can ultimately do whatever you want, but bear in mind that every zombie rule in your style guide is costing you money.

A case study of poor house style

Here’s an example from my own work: I’d sent an edit back to a journal publisher, and the in-house editor reviewed my work and gave me feedback, which I generally welcome. This time, however, the feedback was confounding. She wrote, “For future reference, please note that we use the serial comma before ‘and’ but not before ‘or.’”

Typically, when a client gives me feedback, I’ll thank them and let them know I’ll keep it in mind for the next project. This time I pushed back a little, explaining that I found that rule puzzling. After all, “and” and “or” are both coordinating conjunctions used in series, and usually, in most style manuals, we us a comma before both or before neither. I also told her that her style guide mentioned only “and”—and that she’d have to add the “or” rule if she really wanted to make the distinction clear. I ended by reiterating my confusion about the rule.

She responded, “It may not make sense, but it is our style.”

First, this is something I’d hope you’ll never have to say to your editors, who are likely to operate on logic and consistency. Second, think of all of the actions and interactions this exchange required. The in-house editor had to:

  • find my error,
  • fix my error,
  • correspond with me about my error (over several emails), and
  • update or clarify the style guide.

She would have to repeat most of these steps every time any other editor made the same mistake.

I had to:

  • correspond with the editor, and
  • add the item to my personal checklist.

Worst of all, I will be second-guessing myself about every rule and slowing myself down for every project I do with this client in the future. After all, if the style guide has this strange rule, what other ones does it have?

Each of these interactions cost the client time and money—and all for a rule that didn’t matter. It did nothing to strengthen the journal’s brand or communicate more clearly to readers, and it certainly didn’t lead to greater editorial efficiency.

Isn’t it a freelancer’s job, you might ask, to adapt to different styles? Absolutely—but rules that needlessly contradict industry standards are costly to both you and your editors. What’s more, freelancers are human. If your style guide is too long, we won’t necessarily remember everything when it comes time to work on your project. And any rule that makes editors stop or stumble will cost you money.

House style best practices

House style guides should supplement, not replace, industry-standard style manuals. Otherwise you’re not only reinventing the wheel; you’re essentially replacing a precision-engineered Formula 1 wheel with the wheel off a shopping cart. Because house style guides are supplements only, they should be no longer than five to ten pages—with the upper end reserved for extensive websites, magazines or series.

Further, house style should be audience focused in two ways:

  • the rules in your style guide should serve your readers, not editorial whims;
  • the guide itself should serve its readers—that is, your editors.

To make your house style the most efficient it can be:

  • regularly review your house style for validity (what I call house style audits)
  • separate policies and procedures
  • put it online
  • update to the latest edition of your industry-standard style manual

If you haven’t already chosen an industry-standard style manual to follow, that’s your first step. Next, you’ll want to audit your house style.

Audit house style

Gather your editorial team and at least one external consultant, maybe one of your regular freelancers, to critically evaluate each item in your house style guide. The external consultant will be able to come at the project with more objectivity and ask why the rules you have are there.

For each item in your house style, figure out whether it matches your chosen style manual.

If so:

  • If the rule is a common one, take it out of your house style guide; your editors will know to follow the rule in the style manual.
  • If the rule is uncommon, cite the location in the style manual where the rule appears (e.g., “We follow Chicago 8.82, which states that…”). Referring to the style manual will let you give an abbreviated version of the rule in your style guide.

If not, ask yourself why:

  • If you can’t figure out a reason the rule exists, take it out of your guide.
  • If there’s a legitimate reason for it, such as specific audience expectations, explain it. Your editors may not know your topic as well as you do.
  • If there’s an illegitimate reason for it (e.g., Diana in marketing hates hyphens), explain it. Not only will the clarification help editors remember the rule, but you’ll also know that when circumstances change (e.g., Diana takes a job at another company), you can immediately kill this zombie for good.

Basically, each item in your house style should be justifiable. When you review your house style, watch out in particular for places where your style guide contradicts itself, which can happen if it’s the product of several people’s input.

Finally, ask yourself if you can live with internal consistency alone. If you publish books, for example, each book will have its own style sheet, and readers are unlikely to compare the style of two of your books or care if they differ.

Good times to review your house style are:

  • when people leave,
  • when you introduce a new process, or
  • when you upgrade to a new version of software or update to a new edition of a reference.

Separate policies and procedures

Is your house style document just a style guide, or have you inadvertently canonized it? Some organizations put everything into their house style, from their mission statement to publishing and editorial philosophy. New editors may appreciate the background information, but, for the sake of efficiency, make sure you separate it from the reference material that the editors will have to access regularly. Having to read through preamble to find a rule slows editors down, and you’re paying for that time.

Also separate out style matters (e.g., serial comma or not) from process matters (e.g., formatting and tagging for workflow). Process will probably change much more frequently with changes in technology.

Put it online

I’ve evangelized extensively about the usefulness of editorial wikis, so I won’t do it again here, but I’m a firm believer in putting house style online so that you have one master copy that is

  • easy to revise,
  • easy to search, and
  • easy to make modular.

In a wiki, it’s simple to isolate the parts of your house style that apply just to copy editing, for example, so that you don’t overwhelm your copy editors with irrelevant details that only proofreaders would need to know.

Update your industry-standard references

Use the latest editions of style manuals and dictionaries as your references. Many freelancers now have online subscriptions to their references and have access to only the latest editions.

Taking the leap to a new reference may be an annoyance for in-house staff, but the aggravation is temporary. Freelance editors have to switch between styles all the time, so you’ll adapt in no time. To ease the transition, keep a running checklist of changes to run global searches for (or better yet, make a macro to automate the process).


A house style guide is an essential piece of a communication or publishing operation. Despite the quality of existing style manuals, I’d never suggest going without a house style. Writers and editors benefit from having some guidance and structure on projects, particularly if they’re new to your organization. Just be sure to keep your audience(s) in mind as you develop and maintain your house style guide so that you’re getting the most out of it.

5 thoughts on “House style and the zombie apocalypse: How a poorly thought-out style guide can cost you”

  1. Brilliant post, chock full of practical advice for managing that most indispensable of aids, the style guide. Your procedures for auditing the guide are especially valuable. It’s amazing how often outdated or specious preferences linger in some in-house styles (like the stench of rotting zombies?).

  2. Excellent post, Iva. I dealt with problems like this all the time at my last two jobs. It was especially bad at times because the house style might be based on Chicago 14 or 15, while we’d moved on to 16 as our basic reference. So sometimes the house style needlessly duplicated an out-of-date version that we weren’t using anymore, and it caused a lot of unnecessary confusion.

    And now that I’m in charge of a house style myself, it’s time for me to make some decisions about how to revise and update it. I’ll have to keep this post in mind as I’m making those revisions.

  3. Thank you. This post has much-needed information for editors and publishers. I also did a less-extensive post on this topic a few weeks ago

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