Hire an editor who knows what a style guide is

As my publisher and I learned recently, college students and others who are interested in editing or proofreading novels might give you a blank stare when you ask them which style guide they prefer.

If you’re lucky, they’ll say they follow the Chicago Manual of Style (or an adaptation of it) since that’s the most prevalent one accepted by general book publishers in the United States.  When an editor looks at my work, s/he will almost always change things because–as a former journalist–I grew up using the Associated Press Stylebook which (obviously) focuses on newspapers and includes a handy section on media law.

When I was in college many years ago, we tended to use A Manual for Writers by Kate Turabian because it focused on research papers from the very formal doctoral dissertations and masters theses down to the more rudimentary papers our teachers often called “themes.” Needless to say, there was a lot of information in this about footnotes and citations and tables–not something you see in most novels or news stories. We were also encouraged to study Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

If an English major is thinking about the future, they’re going to be aware of the fact they’ll need a practical use for their B.A. or M.A. degree. In the so-called old days, a lot of companies that had little or nothing to do with novels, nonfiction books, news, or formal research writing liked to hire people with liberal arts degrees and then train them to do the specific work the available jobs required. Those days seem to be long gone.

from The Chicago Manual of Style
from The Chicago Manual of Style

Of course, any college student is better off with a resume, and one good way of getting resume material is a college job that relates to one’s degree or, better yet, an internship. The starting point here, other than help with the college’s or department’s placement office or internship tsar (by whatever title they use), is finding out what prospective summer jobs and internships require. If one researches what proofreaders and various kinds of editors actually do, it’s quite likely the use of a style guide will come up fairly early on even if one has never heard the term before.

Chances are good, the college library, the college bookstore, and the English department itself will have a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. A school of journalism will have a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook. Other disciplines will have copies of the specialized style guides their graduates might one day use.

Basic research is much easier today than it used to be because the Internet offers a quick and easy way to find out what we need to know about anything, including what a student needs to know before going on a job interview for a summer internship at a book publisher’s office.

When I look up proofreading online, here’s the Wikipedia information I find about how it’s done: “Before it is typeset, copy is often marked up by an editor or customer with various instructions as to typefaces, art, and layout. Often these individuals will consult a style guide of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Such guides are usually produced in house by the staff or supplied by the customer, and should be distinguished from professional references such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, The Elements of Style, or Gregg Reference Manual. When appropriate, proofreaders may mark errors in accordance with their house guide instead of the copy when the two conflict. Where this is the case, the proofreader may justifiably be considered a copy editor.”

Those handy links will lead the prospective editorial job applicant to enough additional information about working for a publisher to suggest reading through–or even buying–a copy of the applicable style guide. Then, when the interviewer says, “We use a version of  the Chicago Manual of Style” or “Our style sheet is based on the AP Stylebook,” the hopeful English or journalism major will be ready to demonstrate that s/he knows what that is and is comfortable using it.

Frankly, I hope that if a student asks his or her English/Journalism professor or internship/placement specialist about the benefits of working for a book or newspaper publisher, the university would be ready with applicable advice about the work’s benefits and duties. That way, the student could decide whether they could learn from the experience or not and then be fully prepared for the kinds of questions the interviewer might ask.


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