A matter of style

There’s a discipline amongst publishers, adherence to which – in the eyes of traditional publishers at least – is one of the attributes that separates the professional from the amateur publisher. “Style” in publishing terms is a set of rules that a publisher adheres to in order to achieve accuracy and consistency in usage. It has two purposes:

  • Readability. Content that is accurate and consistent is easier to read. Inaccuracies and inconsistencies are – consciously or subconsciously – noticed by readers, who may in consequence misunderstand or misinterpret, or feel it necessary to re-read passages, or simply wince.
  • Efficiency. Following a set of style rules, authors and editors can more quickly prepare and edit text as decisions do not have to be made along the way – time and time again – as to correct or preferred usage.

In the digital age, to these we should now add usability, as accuracy and consistency also significantly affect the navigability and searchability of digital resources.

Some style rules are universal; that is they are accepted as best practice globally (for a particular lingusitic domain). Rules may be hard and fast or permissive of explicit variation.

Style rules that are local, representing a particular publisher’s preferences, are known as “house style”. Although matters of format and design are sometimes accommodated within a publisher’s house style, strictly the term refers to textual usage.

The UK bible for publishing style is “Hart’s Rules”. Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press was first printed in 1893. This classic reference work for writers, editors, and publishers was in print through 39 editions. New Hart’s Rules (September 2005) now “brings the principles of the old text into the 21st century, providing answers to questions of editorial style for a new generation of professionals”. (Confusingly, the 2002 edition of the wider-ranging Oxford Guide to Style, incorporated an updated Hart’s Rules and was published as “the Hart’s Rules for the 21st Century”.)

Although New Hart’s Rules is still directed at book publishers and may seem fuddy-duddy to the new breed of web publishers, I would commend it as an essential reference for web publishers.