Help for Ambitious Writers Part I: House Style

So you want to get published – wonderful!

Perhaps you’ll fill a writing position for a publisher – or you’ll get a contract to write a book – or you’ll self-publish one. Maybe (like me) you’ll be lucky enough to do all three during your career.

Will you be ready? High school and college writing courses don’t always teach you everything you need to know. This week I’m writing two posts about the larger world of professional writing. Today’s topic is house style – policies that a publisher adopts to ensure consistency about various issues:

  • Which is correct: ok, okay, OK, or O.K.?
  • Should it be a.m., AM, or A.M.?
  • Should you use a capital or lower-case letter after a colon?
  • Is it healthcare, health-care, or health care?

The answer to all of these questions is…it’s a matter of preference. And that’s where copyeditors and house style come in.

My friend Charles Warren is a fine writer and the author of the one of the best young people’s novels I’ve ever read – Address Unknown. (If you know a youngster who likes to read, buy a copy as a gift.) Yesterday Charles sent me the link to a short TED talk by Mary Norris, copyeditor for the New Yorker magazine – meaning that she ensures that every article follows the guidelines for the magazine’s house style.

The video is less than 10 minutes long and well worth watching. It gives you some interesting examples of what good writers (and editors) think about when they prepare a written piece for publication. A bonus is that you’ll pick up some of the terminology that editors use.

Let me also recommend Norris’s wise (and very funny) book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Her stories (some about working on a dairy farm) are hilarious – and you’ll also learn a lot about writing and editing your work. It’s a book I plan to read again.



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