Should Australian editors abandon the national Style Manual?

There’s been talk among Australian editors recently about the perceived need to update the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers. This manual was last updated in 2002, and is said to be due for a new edition.

The Australian Standards for Editing Practice, promulgated by the national professional body for Australian editors, “recognises the most recent version of the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers as the standard Australian editorial reference.”

That the Style Manual has fallen out of date seems to be a good opportunity to question why Australian editors should use it as the standard at all, and I’ve posted a few tweets to the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) to that effect:

IPEd later sent me a tweet inviting me to lobby my MP to update the manual:

But that’s not quite what I had in mind:

At this point it strikes me that IPEd and I might have slightly different ideas of what I mean when I say I’d prefer we drop the manual as the standard (or even a standard).

Naturally, as an editor (and one accredited by IPEd, at that), I support using a style manual to “ensure consistency, quality, and standards in government communications,” or indeed in any kind of communications. As the Style Manual was traditionally published by the Australian Government Publishing Service, it makes sense that editors working on government publications would rely on it, and that they will need it updated if it’s out of date.

But is a government publishing style manual an appropriate standard for all Australian editors? Is this particular government style manual an appropriate standard?

To me, the answer is no, and I’ll explain why.

Please note that the below is a little off-the-cuff, and feel free to correct me or argue with me in the comments. I’m by no means an expert on the intricacies of the guide: I’ve disliked it from the first, have used it for less than 5% of the jobs I’ve worked on in more than a decade of being an editor for pay, and hope to use it as little as possible in the future. That said, I had to study the manual to pass IPEd’s accreditation exam, so I’m not entirely unacquainted with it.

The Style Manual is ugly

Promoting good typography is an important part of my editing practice. I’ll admit there’s an element of snobbish personal taste here, but I try to look for elegant, classic typefaces, use paper sizes close to the golden ratio, and keep the text block narrow and the leading relatively wide.

So the first thing about the Style Manual that makes it an unfit reference, to me, is just that it’s as ugly as many parliamentarians’ hairstyles. I don’t have a picture of its drab, brownish cover, but by the time you get to the “How to Use this Book” page, there is still ugliness aplenty.

For a start, the pages are large and almost square, instead of having a more attractive, narrow rectangular aspect ratio. As a paperback, the book has a floppy quality about it, and won’t sit well on your shelf with other, more standard-sized volumes.

The images don’t line up. There’s that rather unappealing maroon used as a highlight color. The layout is cluttered. The text says “The design of this manual is aimed at presenting a vast array of detailed advice within a useful, interesting framework that will help you discover what you read easily.” But when I look at this page, I see that the manual is already letting itself down.

When we get to more standard pages, things are better, but not that much better:

We see that the book is square to make room for a wide, asymmetrical margin, which is used for numerous margin notes. Why these notes are necessary isn’t clear. Could they not have been incorporated into the body of the text? The manual uses a sans-serif face for headings, page decoration, and examples, and a serif face for body copy. The constant alternation is jarring, and detracts from the sense of visual cohesion, as does the gratuitous use of that maroon highlight color.

When I look at the manual, I don’t trust that its creators really know how to help me create better documents.

In comparison, my favored guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, currently in its sixteenth edition, is consistently simple and beautiful. It embodies the virtues it seeks to promote, and inspires confidence that they know how to make good books.

I’d show you an image of a page from Chicago, but I don’t have one to hand. Why not? I don’t use the print version; I use the electronic version.

Why do I have a print copy of the Style Manual, then?

There is no electronic version of the Style Manual

An electronic style manual is vastly preferable to a printed one. It’s searchable, and as such, far more likely to be consulted. When you need to look up a rule, you can find it quickly, apply it, and get back to work.

Given that the Style Manual was last updated in 2002, it’s no surprise there isn’t an web version like Chicago has. An ePub version would be difficult, too, as the layout is relatively complicated.

But why is there no PDF version? It could be generated easily, sold online, and editors could search it quickly. When I moved overseas, I could have taken such a PDF with me and continued to use it. Instead, I had to cut out the pages I use and scan them.

That there’s no electronic version is a good reason to update the Style Manual. It’s also a good reason for having abandoned it.

This isn’t just an issue of personal preference. I often collaborate with authors, and my own subcontractors, online, across international borders. I would never choose the Style Manual as the reference for such a job, because if they don’t already have it, my collaborators would have to source a print copy. By contrast, they could subscribe instantly to Chicago, or buy the APA manual from the Kindle store, and we could start work right away.

Without an electronic version, the Style Manual is automatically less useful than any similarly comprehensive guide that is available electronically.

The Style Manual is difficult to use

By seeing the way I spell color, you can probably tell I’m a fan of American editorial practice. Chicago is my favorite guide. I use double quote marks and the serial comma. That said, nearly all of my projects use some variant of British English, because that’s what my clients use. (I count Australian English as a British English, by the way.)

One of the things I like about American guides and usage is that they seem more systematic and rational to me. Let’s take one very small point: how we generally punctuate abbreviations in British English.

For an abbreviation like Mr or Dr, we neglect to use a final period because the last letter of the abbreviation is the last letter of the word abbreviated (Mister, Doctor). But if the abbreviation ends before the last letter, (e.g. in ibid. for ibidem or Vic. for Victoria), we use a period.

It’s an easy rule to remember and implement, but it asks us to think more often than the alternative often used in America—to always end an abbreviation with a period, so that we have Mr. and Dr. as well as ibid. and Vic.

In my view, the best guides are those that admit the least discretion on relatively trivial matters such as this. Either you always do something, or never do something. A bad guide will tend to say that you do this if this, that if that … and seven other different things depending on the particular circumstance. Again this poses issues for collaboration, especially with less experienced editors and authors. You spend extra time explaining the exceptions and correcting all the mistakes you and others have made when you’ve inevitably forgotten, for the hundredth time, what is the rule for this or that particular case.

Broadly, I see the Style Manual as being one of those bad guides. It’s anti-Oxford comma, so you generally don’t put a comma before a final list item—except when you must to avoid ambiguity. The rules for hyphenating or not hyphenating compound words stretch onto four separate pages. By contrast, my interpretation of Chicago is that you almost always hyphenate compound adjectives when they precede what they modify, and there are few exceptions.

So, too, with punctuation and quote marks: the Style Manual says punctuation should be inside the quote marks if it belongs to the quote, outside if it doesn’t. This means you need access to the source to decide what to do. Chicago, by contrast, has you leave the punctuation inside the marks under nearly all circumstances.

One final deficiency: the Style Manual doesn’t have section numbers. By contrast, Chicago and the APA manual have numbered headings, so you can easily refer someone to §X.x. This is especially useful when you’re using an electronic edition of a guide, which may not be paginated at all.

It probably sounds by now that I’m advocating we switch to Chicago. That’s not necessarily the case, though I do think it’s a great guide and it’s been used in some capacity almost everywhere I’ve worked as an employee. It’s my personal choice for a default style guide when I start a new project.

The Style Manual is idiosyncratic

We live in an era where there’s been a high degree of globalisation, and that globalisation is intensifying. It’s professionally enriching for editors to participate in global culture and the global economy, and satisfying to employ global standards.

The Style Manual is not a global standard. It’s a government publication manual belonging to a nation of around 25 million people, out of a global population of over 7 billion. It does not reflect standards that would be recognized by the nearly 350 million English speakers in North America, nor by the nearly 1 billion people of Europe, for many of whom English is a lingua franca.

It also doesn’t reflect the practices we’ll have learned at university, which most editors now will have attended. There we’ll have used Chicago, the APA manual, Harvard or Oxford referencing, or some other global academic standard. After using Chicago for years at university, when I took my first look at the Australian manual I almost wanted to cry. Why the hell did they get rid of the periods after authors’ initials?

Why, in fact, do they initialize authors at all? Why would I want to cite something by “D Suvin”? Doesn’t it enrich my life to look at that list and see that D Suvin’s name is actually Darko, and wonder where he came from, and marvel at what a many-faceted world this is? Why obliterate the information that distinguishes “John Smith” from “James Smith”?

Often when the Style Manual deviates from an internationally standard practice, it seems to do so arbitrarily. I can’t cite it because I didn’t bother to scan that page, but I believe there’s mention in there somewhere of how production of the manual involved a process of conscious revisionism—and its results can seem destructive.

What is the point of such deviations at all?

You could say that it’s important to maintain our own cultural traditions as a small country, and I’d agree. But we don’t actually need our own style manual. We’d be better off without it, because our work would travel better if we didn’t use it. At most, as Australian editors what we need is to choose a guide with global currency, and then maintain a list of nationally specific deviations. So, too, we do not need the Macquarie Dictionary, just the Oxford Dictionary and a list of peculiarly Australian words and usages.

Editors should not take their lead from government

Finally, if we are to have an Australian manual, it should not be a government manual.

For me this point is mainly ideological, and many will surely disagree with where I’m coming from. I do not believe that government, or any form of rule, has much fundamental legitimacy. It’s a necessary evil, that can at times do wonderful things. I’d generally agree with Robert Nozick that the minimal state is not only necessary but inspiring, and add that much more than that is usually oppressive and vile.

That we are currently in the position of lobbying MPs to get our style manual updated strikes me as pathetic. We are a self-regulating organisation of highly educated and skilled professionals. We shouldn’t have to ask government, “please sir, can we have another edition?”

Frankly, I’d be very surprised if the average MP has much idea what editors do, what’s in the manual, that there’s even a manual at all, or what a style manual is. Why then, should government be expected to fulfill our need for an editorial reference?

In addition, while many editors may do a substantial amount of government work, many others do not. The Style Manual was, if I understand correctly, designed for government work, not for novels, academic theses, magazines, brochures, annual reports, or websites. Again, no more than 5% of the jobs I’ve ever worked on have been for government or used the Australian manual.

To be fair, this is in part because I’ve expunged the manual and its rules from any house style guides I’ve administered. Often I have walked into a situation where an institution combines the Style Manual with Chicago, often with few clear guidelines about which one should prevail when they conflict. Using multiple style guides at once is, in my experience, a recipe for intense confusion if not disaster, and since the Style Manual is the inferior of the two, it’s always been the one to go.

Outside of government jobs, do Australian editors really use the Style Manual that much? Do they love it? I have my doubts about that, and those doubts make me think that maybe the Standards for Editing Practice shouldn’t “[recognise] the most recent version of the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers as the standard Australian editorial reference.”

Perhaps it should “recognise a range of style guides as ideal editorial references, including X, Y, and Z (etc.) as appropriate to context.” A later part of the standards could specify just which guides are particularly recommended for which scenarios. In addition (and I have no idea if this is still the case), IPEd’s accreditation exam should not require knowledge of the Style Manual, which some, if not many editors, may never or almost never use in their work.

Okay, but what if we still really want our own manual?

While I don’t have any personal wish, or any practical need, for a uniquely Australian manual, I recognize that there are good reasons for wanting or maintaining one. Independence is one: I could imagine a future, for instance, where Chicago jumped the shark in its seventeenth edition, and I eventually couldn’t use the sixteenth because it didn’t adequately deal with how to cite holographic data locations on the NextWeb.

As a professional association for editors, IPEd could well take responsibility for such an Australian style manual itself.

There are a lot of great tools available for maintaining such a document collaboratively and updating it regularly. In particular, I imagine such a guide being hosted on GitHub, and written in Markdown, AsciiDoc, or LaTeX. With appropriate access controls and governance, even a wiki could work.

To keep the task simple, such a guide could initially note that the Style Manual, Chicago, The New Oxford Style Manual, etc. may be used as primary references, but the IPEd-maintained manual provides a quick guide to frequently consulted rules or areas not adequately covered by these other guides. Over time, such a supplement could evolve into a fully fledged style guide, which the profession, not government, would control.

Our style guide would be responsive to our needs. We wouldn’t need to beg anyone for a new edition. A guide maintained by our professional association(s) would easily be better than the Style Manual, which is old and not that great. Some, maybe even many, of my Australian colleagues will disagree. Or will they?

Readers, fellow editors—what do you think?

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.

  • Mel Campbell

    I’ve never had to use the Style Manual and from what you’ve said, I am pretty glad about that. The academic work I edit uses APA, Harvard or MLA (I used MLA at university and now I think I prefer APA); many Australian publishers I’ve dealt with defer to the Macquarie (especially for Australian vocab); and most media organisations either have their own house style guides or work with the Economist guide.

    I have to say I personally prefer UK English usage to US usage, and am perhaps more sanguine than you about guides that allow exceptions to rules – I find that flexible rather than idiosyncratic. But basically I’m happy to use whatever guide my client nominates and stick with it.

  • I like APA, too—it’s the guide I use most frequently for academic work. Some of its rules aren’t entirely to my taste; having to put periods at the end of lower-level headings is particularly troublesome. But it’s well structured and the electronic version is a boon. I also use The Economist’s guide quite a bit, chiefly when I’m working for The Economist Group, but also when editing things with some business or current-affairs content and wanting specific advice on how to deal with names, titles, currencies, etc.

    It’s not exceptions that I’m against, necessarily. If you consciously break a rule because it improves readability or aesthetics, that’s okay. It’s more that I prefer rules that don’t vary much by context or require additional information that might not be in the text. Chicago occasionally offers two rules that you can choose between—a simple one, or a complicated one with multiple conditions (i.e. the three- and four-dot rules for ellipses, and three different rules for omitting digits in number ranges). I appreciate this flexibility.

    I have also worked at some places where a team was working with a previous editor’s house guide that read something like “Chicago, plus the Style Manual sometimes, plus these several pages of arbitrary rules reflecting my personal preferences.” I’ve tended to whittle that down to “Chicago, plus these few pages telling you which rule you should pick when there’s an alternative, and noting sections that you’ll be referring to often for this/these publication(s).” Generally, I think it’s best for a project or organization to use only one guide.

    And, like you, I’m happy to use the guide a client nominates.

    So the key thing is, really, I question having this particular guide as the standard. Outside of government editing, I’m not sure it’s that widely used except as a supplemental reference, in that context of “Guide X plus the Style Manual sometimes.” That question becomes particularly acute if the Style Manual is out of date and we have to lobby to have it updated.

    Plus, the more I think about it, I find the idea of a collaboratively edited guide, maintained by the profession, pretty exciting.